Joe Biden told a restaurant owner to simply pay staff more at a town hall on Wednesday night when asked how his administration planned to get people back to work after increasing unemployment benefits by so much that business owners now say they can’t compete.
Biden was speaking at a half-empty town hall in Cincinnati when he was asked by Ohio restaurant owner John Lanni how he planned to resolve the labor crisis unfolding across America. Lanni owns the Thunderdome Restaurant Group which has 39 restaurants across the country. He said he, like thousands of others, can’t find staff willing to take restaurant jobs now.
One of the reasons restaurant owners have cited is that people have earned more than ever in unemployment benefits. At the height of the pandemic, people were earning as much as $16-an-hour in COVID payments. Twenty-six states have ended them early to get people back to work and in those states, more people are taking jobs.
Lanni, who says he already pays staff $15-an-hour, said: ‘The entire industry, amongst other industries, continues to struggle to find employees. How do you and the Biden administration plan to incentivize those that haven’t returned to work yet? Hiring is our top priority right now.’
In response, Biden seemed to wipe his hands of the issue, claiming the shortage wasn’t down to increased benefits but people no longer wanting to work in restaurants.
Even if his benefits contributed to the problem, he said they were ending soon.
‘My gut tells me that… there’s a lot of people looking to change their occupation. But I could be wrong. I think it really is a matter of people deciding now that they have opportunities to do other things and there’s a shortage of employees. People are looking to make more money and to bargain.
‘I think your business and the tourist business is really going to be in a bind for a little while. People being seven, $8 an hour plus tips, that’s – I think, John, you’re going to be finding 15 bucks an hour or more now,’ he said.
He then even conceded that the expanded benefits might have contributed to the shortage but said ‘they’re ending now’.
‘Let’s assume it did, but it’s coming to an end,’ the President said.
Lanni said later Biden ‘didn’t answer the question’ and other restaurant owners said the response showed the President does not understand the labor crisis unfolding across his country.
Restaurants say they are still struggling after 18 months of closures due to COVID-19. While their laid-off staff were able to claim benefits, they weren’t.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund awarded $20billion in grants to 100,000 restaurants but many say more money is needed.
Many of the payments have also been halted due to a lawsuit against the Small Business Association which alleges the money was being unfairly given out because it women and minority applicants were given first priority.
On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer is pushing for another $60billion to be added to the fund.
Biden, in his response to Lanni at the townhall, said: ‘If you notice, we kept you open.
‘We spent billions of dollars to make sure restaurants could stay open and a lot of people who now work as waiters, waitresses decided that they don’t want to do that anymore because there was other opportunities at higher wages because there was a lot of openings now in jobs and people are beginning to move.
‘There’s some evidence that maintaining the ability to continue to not have your – have to pay your rent so you don’t get thrown out and being able to provide for unemployment insurance – has kept people from going back to work. There’s not much distinction between not going back to work in a restaurant and not going back to work at a factory.
‘So people are looking to change opportunities, change what they’re doing.’
‘All kidding aside, I think it really is a matter of people deciding now that they have opportunities to do other things and there’s a shortage of employees, people are looking to make more money and to bargain.
‘So I think your business and the tourist business is really going to be in a bind for a little while. We’re ending all of those things keeping people from going back to work, et cetera. It will be interesting to see what happens, but my gut tells me, my gut tells me that part of it relates to, you know, you can make a good salary as a waiter or waitress.
‘But there’s a lot of people who are looking to change their occupation. I could be wrong.’
Pressed on what he could do to help Lanni, the president said that the government had implemented programs to keep businesses running.
‘John, first of all, the thing we did to help John and the Johns out is provide billions of dollars to make sure they could stay open, number one,’ Biden said.
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Citing workforce shortages, 26 states terminated early at least one of the three pandemic unemployment insurance programs Congress enacted in March 2020 and extended twice. The Biden administration has said governors could restart the programs if they chose to.
Some 4.1 million Americans will be affected by the states ending benefits early, according to The Century Foundation.