Milwaukee restaurants hiring as COVID restrictions dropped

If you are looking for a job, Milwaukee restaurants want you to know they are hiring. A Wisconsin Restaurant Association survey finds 83 percent of operators statewide had difficulty filling job openings. It comes as business ramps up and Milwaukee is getting ready to drop all of its COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday, June 1.

Just blocks away from Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks playoff game should mean a boom for business, sits an empty Calderone Club and San Giorgio Pizzeria Napoletana – now open just five nights a week. 

"Tonight is I think the first time, we’ve been here almost 40 years, and we’re unable to open for game number two of the Milwaukee Bucks hosting the Miami Heat – because I don’t have enough staff to open up the restaurant – and that’s heartbreaking," said Gino Fazzari, owner.

Gino Fazzari

Gino Fazzari

The two downtown restaurants survived 14 months of the pandemic and have a new challenge: not enough workers. Some employees left the industry, some sought jobs in areas with fewer restrictions than Milwaukee, and some people stay home for various reasons.

"It’s tough when they don’t have people; when they can’t drop their kids off at daycare, right? There’s a problem because daycares are understaffed or closed because of COVID. When schools are virtual," Fazzari said.

Wisconsin Restaurant Association Board Chairman Chris Wiken runs the Packing House. 

"The days we’re open, we’re doing great," Wiken said.

It sits empty Mondays and Tuesdays. Before the pandemic, it was open 365 days a year.

"What we’re seeing, even if we wanted to reopen those days, our staff just isn’t available to work those extra days," Wiken said. "Right now, they are working those five days that we are open, gives them two days off, but I don’t have the extra staff to cover those extra hours."

Chris Wiken

Chris Wiken

"There is no easy fix, there’s no easy fix at all. But something’s got to be done. Someone needs to look at this long and hard and say -- what can we do to fix this problem so that we can restore the workforce?" Fazzari said.

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One idea: some business leaders urge the state to get rid of extra federal unemployment benefits. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce joined trade groups, like the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, sending a letter to Gov. Tony Evers asking him to stop the extra $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits. 

"Through September, an individual can receive $670 per week on unemployment due to the $300 federal enhancement. That is the equivalent of $16.75 per hour. Our member employers tell us every single day that this expanded unemployment benefit is creating a strong disincentive to work and is making it harder for them to hire," the groups wrote. "We cannot afford to continue to have potential employees remaining on the sidelines while thousands of jobs are available today."

State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) counters, saying that federal money is still needed because industries like entertainment and hospitality have yet to return to pre-pandemic staffing. He adds, "…standard unemployment, which comes out to a maximum of just $9.25 per hour, is not enough for most Wisconsin families to pay their bills."

The federal supplement is going to 85,000 Wisconsinites. Across the state, the Wisconsin Job Center lists 107,000 open jobs.

New this week after a legislative committed reinstated it, those Wisconsinites receiving unemployment will have to do four work-search actions a week. That includes things like sharing a resume, registering with a temp agency, meeting a career counselor, or going to a job interview.