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Worker Shortages In the Service Industry Slow An Ozarks Brewery Trying to Expand

Beer still flows from the tap at Wages Brewing Company in West Plains, along with ciders, lagers, and kombucha. The brewery’s slogan, “The middle of nowhere never tasted so good,” invites patrons to sit in the company’s taproom and enjoy food, drink, and live music on the weekends.

But around this time last year, Wages Brewing was in crisis as COVID ripped through the Ozarks. Owner and bartender Phil Wages says business dried up almost overnight as patrons scared of catching the virus stopped going out.

“I think we were just coming out of the lockdown and we were still only doing curbside service," Wages recalls. "I was working two or three hours a day, and it was scary. It was like, ‘How long is this thing going to last?’”

Since there was no work for his three part-time bartenders to do, they quit. And the food company contracted to work with Wages left in July. But Wages kept the business running. He credits the government stimulus and the vaccine for helping the brewery recover.

“Things started picking up in January, I think, as the vaccine started rolling out," he says. "Once it was open to everyone, two or three weeks after that, things really started picking up. And we’re about 90, 95 percent of normal sales right now.”

But that bounce back has led to a new challenge: Wages says he’s short staffed, and he’s taken on a lot of responsibilities, from pouring beers, making cocktails, and making and serving soups and pizzas. He says he’s working harder than ever before.

“That’s the goal, right? I’m just trying to figure out a way to make business work, and it’s working…but it’s a lot of work,” Wages laughs.

Wages hired a bartender, but he says he needs more employees to lighten the load. Eventually, he hopes to hire four or five more workers so he can expand the brewery’s hours to include lunch and dinner. His only problem? There just aren’t enough people looking for work right now.

“For about a month I’ve had a job ad out, and I’ve only had four applicants, and I just haven’t seen what I’m looking for in the right skills and all that,” Wages says.

He says he’s seen help wanted signs everywhere in West Plains, and that local restaurants appear to be the shortest on staff. And nationwide numbers tell the same story. According to the National Restaurant Association, last month restaurants added 186,000 jobs across the country. Unemployment has decreased steadily over the course of this year, but restaurants are still about a million and half jobs short of where they were before the COVID pandemic.

In Missouri, the unemployment rate in May was 4.2 percent, way down from 12.5 percent when COVID shutdowns occurred in April of last year, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.

Katherine Trombetta, spokesperson for the Missouri Job Center based in Springfield, says with recovery in full swing, it’s easier than ever for someone to get back into the labor market—or even switch careers.

“It is a job seeker’s market right now," Trombetta tells KSMU. "It is a great time to look for a job, and to find a job. There are so many opportunities out there. So many businesses are hiring.”

While most economists point to a number of factors causing the labor shortage, businesses and state governments are looking at unemployment benefits as a major factor in the lack of job applicants.

According to NPR, unemployment benefits are worth $300 a month, and even though they expire in September, over two dozen states are opting to end the benefits early. Missouri ended federal unemployment benefits on June 12, with Governor Mike Parson stating it would incentivize Missourians to get back to work.

But wages at available jobs are a big piece of the puzzle.

Trombetta says businesses are trying strategies that make them more attractive to the limited number of job seekers out there.

“Companies are really looking at wages right now, and making sure their wages are competitive. They’re also looking at benefits, and maybe for the first time they’re extending benefits to part time employees, even.”

Back at his brewery in West Plains, Phil Wages says he’s also looking at other options to attract workers.

“I might have to lower my standards in what I’m looking for," he says. "I might have to try to offer a sign-up bonus, I’ve seen businesses doing that. I might even try to find people from other breweries and try to poach them. I don’t want to do that either, but if it goes long enough, I’ve got to grow, you know. I’ll do what I’ve got to do.”

As the Ozarks region continues its long economic recovery, business owners like Wages may have to get creative to find workers. For now, all across America, help is wanted.

Josh Conaway is a graduate of Missouri State University with a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in International Affairs. He works as a news reporter and announcer at KSMU. His favorite part of the job is exploring the rich diversity of the Ozarks and meeting people with interesting stories to share. He has a passion for history and running.