Virus Outbreak Colorado

A waitperson wears a face mask while tending to a patron sitting in the outdoor patio of a sushi restaurant, late Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in downtown Denver.

It’s come to this. A doughnut shop in Colorado Springs — one that’s weathered wildfires, hail and economic recessions — can’t endure the existential crisis of people who serve people.

Until there’s a labor force, you won’t get an espresso and glazed traditional at the Dunkin’ (sans Donuts) shop at 806 W. Colorado Ave. Welcome to the world we live in.

"We just can't get people to work," the owner told the Colorado Springs Gazette, explaining the 55-year-old shop that normally employs 15 had withered to three. At that point, entrepreneurs give up.

The pandemic, policies and economic downturn is going to affect all of us who don’t hunt and butcher our own grub.

If you think we’re digging out, you’re wrong.

"In a nutshell, our restaurants can’t even begin to recover from the economic downturn of the pandemic because they’re burdened by the weight of pandemic-related debt, significant increases in operational costs, and the continuation of the labor shortage, which is only getting worse,” Denise Mickelsen, spokeswoman for the Colorado Restaurant Association,  told me. 

I asked her if the outlook is sunny, cloudy or Old Testament awful.

"The forecast for the restaurant industry is not as sunny as it appeared to be this past spring, unfortunately," she said, calling the last 18 months the worst in living memory for the retail food trade.

More than a quarter of Colorado's restaurants are considering closing, so let's see what that does to your wait for a breakfast table at any Snooze's Denver locations. Pack a lunch.

The same association survey from July 8 to Aug. 9 found that every single restaurant owner said costs were higher these days, and 95% said they had to pass the burden on to customers a result.

The past year brought on the sharpest increase in food prices since 2011. Wholesale prices soared 9.6% higher in June this year compared to June last year.

The price of a tomato isn't the worst of it.

You could, however, call it good fortune for workers, whose wages have been stagnant for years on top of a steady decline in benefits. If the free market is about competition, labor has the upper hand for a change.

More than 9 out of 10 restaurants struggles to hire enough staff, and 67% are concerned about retaining current staff.

Since March 2020, Colorado restaurants have increased wages by an average of 19%, including nearly a third that had raised wages by up to 30%, according to their association.

The survey found almost a quarter of restaurants have boosted benefits, including paid time off, more insurance, retirement plans, educational assistance and hiring bonuses.

This isn't just a Denver problem or solely a restaurant problem. It's an American problem. Across the country, there were nearly 11 million job openings in July, a record high. Stocks fell with the news.

Monday, I received an email from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver about its new career center and training programs to find and train people to work in the rental housing industry.

The association also is offering two six-week training programs — one for maintenance and one for management and leasing — paying $17 an hour for on-the-job training and, if all goes well, a job at the end.

National retail chains also are waking up to the value of low-wage employees. Target, Walmart, CVS Pharmacy and Chipotle are raising wages up to $15, after years of resisting a higher minimum wage . That's on top of hiring bonuses and better benefits. 

The crisis facing restaurants will hit us all in the stomach or the wallet.

Colorado restaurants have taken on an average of about $180,000 in debt since the pandemic began, according to the trade association, and those bills are going to come due. You and I will help pay the note.

Economists can't agree on whether expanded benefits are feeding the labor shortage, however.

In March, the American Rescue Plan put $1,400 stimulus checks into recipients' bank accounts, expanded the Child Tax Credit and increased unemployment benefits by $300 a week through the beginning of this month.

While $300 is a cushion, the majority of economists say the effect on overall labor figures is minimal, unless a full-time job pays less than $300 a week after taxes.

Some jobs pay too little or are too far away for workers to afford to accept them, and better-paying positions often require skills or certifications they don't have. Child care is a pandemic challenge, with providers closing or limiting enrollment, while schools are on-again, off-again on remote learning.

Colorado legislators have been sympathetic. In a special session last December, the General Assembly created a temporary tax break allowing the restaurants to keep monthly 2.9% sales tax receipts rather than paying it to the state.

That was on top of a $37 million “direct relief” bill for eateries, bars and other small businesses hurt by capacity limits under the governor's public health orders.

All this activity is the salad and potatoes. It's not the main course. The entree is an economy that works again, with enough dollars in the working person's pocket to enjoy frequent meals out.

We'll have to wait longer on that dinner bell.

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