Biden tells struggling restaurant owner to ‘pay staff more’ to attract employees during anemic town hall

President Joe Biden, before a half-empty venue in Trump-friendly Ohio on Wednesday, told a struggling restaurant owner he should pay more if he wants to attract workers.

At a town hall-style event in Cincinnati, Biden said to the restauranteur he would “pay staff more” after the owner asked how the president was going to incentivize getting people back into the workforce after signing COVID relief legislation that boosted unemployment pay to levels that make it impossible for small businesses to compete.

The owner, John Lanni, was questioning the president about his plan to solve the burgeoning labor shortage amid near-record job openings across the country. Lanni, who owns the Thunderdome Restaurant Group overseeing 39 eateries around the country, said he, like thousands of other restaurant owners, can’t get enough staff to fill openings in the industry.

One of the main reasons, says Lanni and many other restaurant owners, is that unemployment benefits during the COVID pandemic pay up to $16 an hour, though more than half of states — 26 — have opted to end benefits in response to business owners’ complaints about being unable to find help. In those states, many jobs are now being filled.

“The entire industry, amongst other industries, continues to struggle to find employees,” Lanni, who already pays workers $15 an hour, said. “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.”

Biden responded by shrugging off the issue, calling it the “industry’s” responsibility to find a way to attract more workers. He went on to claim that the government has done a lot to keep restaurants open as the pandemic raged last year and into this year. The president then said he has a sister-in-law working in Atlantic City, N.J., as a waitress who’s doing “fine” and that he has yet to see “serious” evidence outside unemployment benefits are causing labor shortages as they are “coming to an end” anyway.

“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,” Biden said. “People are looking to make more money and to bargain. And so 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,” Biden continued.

Lanni responded later by saying that Biden “didn’t answer the question,” adding that he and other restaurant owners believe Biden’s response indicates he doesn’t get how bad the labor crisis around the country has gotten.

“Two things. One, 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,” Biden said.

“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,” he continued. “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.”

“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,” Biden added.

In a follow-up interview with the Cincinnati Inquirer, Lanni and another restauranteur, Jean-Francois Flechet, noted they are already paying workers $15 an hour and that Biden doesn’t understand the situation.

“We are in a labor crisis and we need to find a way to incentivize people to get back to work. I just heard restaurants are going to have a hard road going forward and that we need to pay our workers more. That’s happening and it’s still not enough,” said Lanni.

Flechet, who owns Taste of Belgium, added: “I understand where the president was going; everyone deserves a living wage, But he was mixing answers. This wasn’t about living wages. Anybody who works Thunderdome or Taste of Belgium makes more than $15 an hour. I don’t know that he fully understands the challenges we are facing.

“If we cannot find workers, restaurants cannot survive,” Flechet noted further.

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Jon Dougherty

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