Labor shortage strikes Vienna businesses

Rachel Schlueter, Editor-in-Chief

When you walk into Foster’s Grille, you’ll hear the sizzle of the grill, smell the fresh batches of french fries and see district manager Bronwyn Phillips behind the counter, greeting you with a smile and a cheerful “How are ya?” Phillips has worked at Foster’s Grille for nearly two decades, watching kids grow up and the Vienna Shopping Center evolve. However, she has never seen a labor shortage.

“In the 19 years that I’ve been here, the Rexall Drug Center, the dry cleaners, the dollar store—they’ve never had a ‘Help Wanted’ sign up,” Phillips said. “I’ve seen it at Taco Bamba, Panera, Ben & Jerry’s next door, through this whole shopping center. It’s everywhere.”

Vienna is suffering from the national labor shortage. Economic recovery is slowing down; July added one million jobs, versus August added 235,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many Vienna businesses are hiring but cannot find people to fill the positions. 

“Normally we get a lot of applications, and it’s usually a lot of teenagers,” Phillips said. “Now, there are no applicants.”

In food service, high schoolers typically have cashier or waiter positions, but because of the few high schoolers, adult managers are filling the gaps. At Foster’s Grille, managers work double duty: manning the cash register and bussing tables, in addition to typical responsibilities. 

Social Burger, another beloved local burger joint, has three cashiers and waiters, all of which are high schoolers. Ben Schults (’22), one of those employees, doesn’t mind picking up extra hours. However, having a small cohort of high school employees can prove difficult. 

“In October, all three of us [cashiers and waiters] are all going to be gone for a weekend,” Schults said. “We’ll have trouble finding people that can work then.”

Retail businesses are seeing a similar shortage of high school workers. Nina Conforti (’22) works at Hallmark and feels pressure to pick up extra shifts as the store desperately searches for employees. 

“Our manager is sending out texts saying ‘If you know anybody, tell us, tell them to apply to Hallmark,’ regardless of any previous experience,” Conforti said. 

Both Conforti and Schults said that graduating seniors have left significant holes. 

“Everybody has gotten older and phased out,” Schults said. “One person stopped working because he could file for unemployment, even in high school, and was making more money than working.”

Many critics blame COVID-19 unemployment benefits as the key contributor to the labor shortage. However, states that stopped unemployment checks over the summer did not see stronger job growth than Virginia. and other states that kept them, according to JP Morgan Chase. At Foster’s Grille, Phillips believes that if the COVID-19 pandemic slows, that business will pick up again. 

“I don’t know if people are scared or kids don’t want to work right now or their parents don’t want them to,” Phillips said. “But, more and more people are in the streets, and they don’t have masks on. Based on having customers that come in and talk, I don’t think people are scared as much as they used to be.”

Philips is optimistic that the labor shortage will improve as school starts and fall sports and activities end, making it easier to recruit teenagers. Until applicant flow restarts, Vienna residents are helping businesses survive. 

“The support that the Town of Vienna gives us is fantastic,” Phillips said. “The pandemic was slow, but we never closed. We’ve done really well. I’m hoping it’ll get better.”