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Help wanted: Why Dallas-Fort Worth restaurants can’t find enough workers to stay open

If you have noticed long waits and spotty customer service at some Dallas-Fort Worth area restaurants, it may be because many of these employers can’t fill enough job openings to keep things running smoothly.

A few weeks ago, customers visiting a Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in Northlake, near Texas Motor Speedway, found the dining room locked and a sign on the door apologizing, and explaining that the eatery didn’t have enough staff to fully conduct business that day.

Experts say many factors are contributing to a shortage of workers in Dallas-Fort Worth, particularly the wealthier suburban neighborhoods where teenagers and young adults don’t necessarily have to work for spending money, and a low-wage work force must commute into the area from neighboring cities to fill jobs.

One factor is immigration.

Numerous studies have documented a decline in the number of people coming into the United States from countries such as Mexico, a trend that dates back to 2008. Those immigrants — eager to establish themselves in their new surroundings — traditionally provided a work force for low-paying jobs such as those in the restaurant, construction and other service industries.

Another factor is the market pressure being put on business owners to raise wages — which in many instances can eat away at employers’ profit margins.

The minimum wage in Texas is $7.25 an hour, which is in line with the federal minimum threshold. But many fast food restaurants must offer prospective employees $10, $12 or more per hour to persuade them to join the team.

“The pay has a very big impact on this area. We have a lot of competition — Buc-ee’s, Olive Garden, In-N-Out Burger, Raisin’ Cane’s, McDonald’s,” said Celina Galvan, manager of the Popeye’s near the speedway. “Buc-ee’s pays as much as $17 per hour. They (job applicants) weigh their options and go with whoever can pay the most.”

Galvan noted that the employee shortage that led to the recent closure of her Popeye’s dining room has been resolved.

But overall, Galvan says she sometimes can’t match the hourly salaries that some competitors pay in the fast-growing retail area near Interstate 35W and Texas 114 in the Fort Worth-Northlake area. Instead, she lures some workers — often teenagers — to join her payroll by offering flexible schedules.

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A sign outside a Popeye’s in Northlake urges proespective employees to apply inside. Gordon Dickson

Roger Meiners, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, says business owners need to pay higher wages to fill their job openings.

“My impression is that the minimum wage just doesn’t cut it much anymore,” Meiners said. “The demand is so high that, if you’re not paying above minimum wage, in most instances you’re not going to get applications. There are signs up at various food places saying ‘We pay $12 an hour.’ ”

“Our economy is so hot,” Meiners added, “there’s very good opportunities, even for people with little education and not a lot of experience.”

Unemployment in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is at 3.3 percent, close to the national rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which cited data from August. Although that figure is up slightly from a 2.7 percent unemployment rate in May, economists say it’s still close to a historical low.

Those economists say such a low jobless figure indicates that the North Texas region is near “full employment,” meaning that, essentially, just about everyone who wants a job has one. Typically, when full employment happens, employers must raise wages and other benefits to lure workers away from competitors.

Many restaurateurs are using technology to make up for a lack of employees, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.

Restaurants such as Panera Bread and McDonald’s have found success with online ordering (either by using a mobile phone, or by selecting from touch screen menus at the restaurant entrances).

Others including Chili’s and Olive Garden now ask customers to pay their tabs with touch screen pads at their tables, rather than hand a credit card or cash to a paid worker. Using technology to take care of ordering and paying for food frees up time for servers to handle more tables of customers.

Raising prices to cover higher salaries isn’t always an option for restaurant owners, some of whom face stiff competition from nearby eateries, or own franchises in which the price is controlled by the brand headquarters.

For those who can’t raise prices, Meiners said, “you may have to use more capital on buying equipment to replace some of the labor.”

“Or,” he added, “maybe cut back the number of hours you’re open.”

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Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.
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