FILE - Teen restaurant worker

(The Center Square) – For months, Nebraska restaurants have struggled to remain in business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the pandemic is loosening its grip, some owners are struggling with a different threat: lack of workers.

“It’s bad,” Zoe Nelson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, told The Center Square. “Nebraska has the second-lowest unemployment rate in the country next to South Dakota. We’re short of people. We have restaurants that are closing on certain days, they close early on other days. Some aren’t opening for lunch anymore.”

Business for restaurants is roaring back, but the staff isn’t.

“There are a lot of reasons for that,” Nelson said. “During the pandemic, grocery stores were hiring and so were long-term care facilities.”

Restaurants workers took jobs where they could find them as restaurants were closed during the pandemic or reduced to takeout only. Others have said enhanced unemployment benefits are disincentivising many from rejoining the workforce.

Manufacturing is also ramping up in Nebraska, providing even more competition, Nelson said.

“They’re giving sign-up bonuses,” Nelson said. “Some of our restaurants are also doing bonuses. It’s not just our industry that is looking for workers. It’s everybody.”

One restaurant in northeast Nebraska lost all of its full-time staff in one day after a manufacturing plant offered $1,500 hiring bonuses for workers.

The restaurant had to close one of its rooms, closed one extra day each week and shortened the hours it was open, Nelson said.

“The owner told me she’s exhausted,” Nelson said. “She told me she can’t do this anymore without people to work.”

An aging population is contributing to the labor shortage as older workers retire and there aren’t enough younger workers to replace them, Nelson said.

“What we’re asking for as an association is for Congress to start working with the administration and fix immigration,” Nelson said. “We need some serious immigration reform. People want to be here and they want to follow the rules and they want to be here. They are important members in all of our communities in Nebraska. To say that we are going to keep everybody out is pretty shortsighted.”