DENVER — Businesses are having a difficult time hiring back employees after the COVID-19 pandemic, so they are turning to teenagers to fill their staffing shortages.
For more than a year, business at Cattivella Wood-Fired Italian has been tough. In that time, owner Elise Wiggins has had to make some very difficult decisions: who to lay off, who to keep, how much she could afford to pay and how to keep her restaurant afloat. There was even a time Wiggins started selling off her personal furniture just to keep the doors open.
The restaurant, which was staffed by professional servers who know about formal service and wine, was whittled down to a skeleton crew of only a few people.
As restrictions started to ease up, Wiggins and many other businesses started looking to hire back those employees but had a hard time getting people to show up.
“We cannot get staff in. We can’t. I’ll put 14 contacts out for 14 people to come in and interview and I have a zero show up,” she said. “This is every day that I put the ads out and have people that say, ‘Yes, I want to do it,’ and I feel like they’re only doing that so they can submit for unemployment to show they are looking for a job.”
Because of the staffing shortages, Wiggins says the restaurant has not been able to go back to being open seven days a week, and she’s not alone.
In an effort to get more people back into the workforce, some businesses are offering hiring bonuses, higher pay, more benefits, etc. Wiggins increased her wage range by $7 but still wasn’t able to get new employees to come in.
“These guys can make amazing money, and still it’s like crickets for these applicants. Crickets,” she said.
That’s when she started hiring more teenagers to staff the restaurant, like 16-year-old Sarah Fuller.
Fuller is going to be a senior at Regis High School in the fall with dreams of becoming a lawyer one day. Last school year, COVID-19 affected many high school sports, and she got bored sitting at home all the time, so she decided to get a part-time job. She’s been working at Cattivella since January.
“I really like hosting a lot because I really like talking to people when they walk in, and so it was scary, but I love it. It’s a good way to get out of my house,” Fuller said. “It’s kind of preparing me for my future in a way, I believe.”
Fuller makes $14.77 an hour plus tips. She spends some of the money on normal teenage things, like clothes or to hang out with her friends. She also wants to save a good chunk of here paycheck for college, so she opened a savings account.
The trend of hiring more teens is a stark contrast from previous years. A report by Drexel University found that teenage employment has been on the decline since thee 1990s. In some professions, older workers or immigrants were edging out teenagers for jobs. In other instances, teens were choosing not to work to focus on school, sports or applying for college. At its worst, teen employment dropped to 26.3%.
However, the report predicts a strong rise in teenage employment over the summer, with roughly 31.5% of teens working.
For Cattivella, teenage workers have helped keep the doors open and the quality of service up. The age makeup of the employees has shifted dramatically in recent months. Wiggins now has more teens working in the front of the house than adults; they’re the hosts, bussers and runners. Some are even learning how to work in the kitchen.
“I would just be dead in the water if it wasn’t for these kids,” Wiggins said.
For now, she’s just asking for restaurant patrons to be patient and understanding as businesses try to work through the challenges of being short-staffed, and she’s hoping these teenagers will stick around after the summer.