Despite the recent lifting of enhanced COVID-19 restrictions and active cases on campus dwindling, Kenyon’s campus operations remain far from normal. Four of the eight independent businesses in Gambier — including Chilitos Fresh Mex, the Gambier Deli, the Village Market and the Kenyon Inn restaurant — have been temporarily closed or have reduced their hours this semester due to staffing shortages. In addition, several other businesses in Gambier, such as the Bookstore and AVI food services, have reported staffing complications.
The temporary closure of Chilitos has become a target of conversation on campus, with many theories circulating as to why the doors of the student-favorite food option remain closed. During a recent Student Council meeting, Dean of Campus Life Laura Kane addressed rumors that the restaurant had lost its liquor license, explaining that it is closed due to short staffing.
In Knox County, more people than ever before have voluntarily quit their jobs and many unemployed workers are retiring or seeking jobs in different fields. Job resignations and openings are at an all-time national high. In particular, the hospitality and leisure industries were decimated by the pandemic, seeing more than a 10% reduction in the industry labor force.
This trend is not unique to Knox County — similar difficulties are apparent throughout Ohio and the nation as a whole. The unparalleled conditions of the pandemic provided workers an opportunity to reassess their employment, leading to a major reshuffling in the labor market.
In the post-pandemic market, job seekers are able to leave their jobs as soon as they are notified of opportunities offering better pay or benefits, specifically pertaining to schedule flexibility and childcare benefits. Meanwhile, minimum wage or low-paying service jobs are far less attractive than they were before. “[Employers are] now finding when posting help wanted signs, there just aren’t people looking for those particular types of jobs,” Trevon Logan, an economics professor at The Ohio State University, told Knox Pages.
In April 2020, the harshest month of the pandemic for the United States economy, the unemployment rate in Ohio reached 16.4%, its highest since the Great Recession (25.6%). Beyond widespread layoffs, many employers cited health concerns and generous federal unemployment benefits as reasons for lower interest in employment. They presumed that the reopening of in-person businesses and a decline in COVID-19 cases would begin to bring back employees.
Although unemployment in Ohio stabilized at a tremendous pace, this labor rebound has not gone quite as expected. As of October, the unemployment rate in the state returned to its normal level of about 5%. However, the labor market remains unbalanced and jobs continue to be extraordinarily hard to fill.
In addition to the 2.5 million U.S. workers displaced due to unemployment, 2.9 million people have left the labor market altogether, leaving the labor force well short of its size prior to the COVID-19 outbreak (3.6% deficit).
According to PJ Glandon, a Kenyon associate professor of economics, many people took the pandemic as an opportunity to retire or change careers. “People at the peak of their careers or late in their careers have decided to retire and left vacancies in their roles creating a big opportunity for other people to change careers,” Glandon said in a recent Knox Pages panel.
Although Gambier businesses’ staffing difficulties have much to do with nationwide labor shortages, supply shortages and a lack of business due to fluctuations in the campus population also complicated the transition to post-pandemic service.
In light of these issues, Kenyon stepped in to assist Village businesses throughout the pandemic. This was an unprecedented move by the College, which has rarely involved itself in the financial affairs of the independently operated businesses in Gambier. The College owns and leases the facilities currently housing Wiggin Street Coffee, the Village Inn, the Deli, Chilitos, the Village Market and Campus Auto. According to Ian Smith, vice president for facilities, planning and sustainability, the College is only responsible for maintaining the buildings themselves, including infrastructure such as electricity and plumbing.
The College began to waive lease payments for all six businesses with the rents due in April 2020 and continued this through June 2021, for a total of 15 months. Lease payments resumed beginning in July 2021.
Smith said that Kenyon suspending monthly lease payment requirements from these businesses was the most significant, concrete and practical step it could take to help the College’s commercial tenants remain a viable part of the Gambier community.
Given Village businesses’ reliance on Kenyon student patronage, the College wanted to ensure that these businesses could still survive without the normal student population present.
“The presence of businesses in Gambier is important for the overall experience of the College and so we feel that it’s a partnership [that] is important and [we’re] doing what we can to help to make sure that businesses could make it through the time of the pandemic,” President Sean Decatur said.
Despite the College’s aid, the economic impact of the pandemic continues to affect Gambier businesses’ operations. The Kenyon Inn, which serves as a student residency this year, has significantly reduced its restaurant’s hours due to staffing concerns. The absence of hotel guests has also impacted the restaurant’s business, as students are less likely to frequent the Inn for a luxury meal than external visitors.
According to an anonymous employee, the restaurant usually closes down before people are forced to work overtime. Right now, the restaurant offers service from 11 a.m. through 2 p.m. and remains open for dinner service only a couple of nights per week.
The Kenyon Inn is attempting to increase its staff and is currently looking for anyone trained to work in the kitchen, specifically line cooks. Although historically the restaurant has hired very few Kenyon students, several students have recently joined the staff.
The most notable business struggling with understaffing is Chilitos, which has yet to open this semester. Chilitos tends not to accept many student workers due to scheduling complications and prefers to bring in workers from outside the Kenyon community, especially those who are immigrants of Latinx descent. Former Chilitos employee Leesbeth Claros ’22 noted that this component of Chilitos is crucial to its cultivation of a family-oriented atmosphere, which resonates with many Latinx students. While Chilitos hires primarily non-student workers, Claros believes the business really does love students and wants to give them jobs. “I think it is hard for them to continue to be staffed especially during midterms and finals, and during the weekends,” she said. Claros expects the restaurant to reopen relatively soon.
Unlike many of the other businesses in the Village, the Market does not commonly hire student workers. Since reopening last fall, the Market’s hours continue to be significantly limited due to staffing concerns. The Market has recently been known to not hire students, primarily because of students having scheduling conflicts, cancelling shifts last minute or selling alcohol to underage friends.
Although the Market seems content in offering reduced service while staffing problems persist, its change in operations is seriously impacting the Kenyon Bookstore.
The Bookstore briefly shut down at the start of the pandemic but reopened to the public in May 2020. For several months, the Bookstore was the only location on campus fully open to the general public, staff and students. According to General Manager Angus MacDonnell, staffing hasn’t been a struggle until very recently. He added that the biggest challenge for the Bookstore is sourcing enough product to meet the demand of the large campus population. “With the Market closed at night and on the weekends the demand for snacks and drinks has increased dramatically, which is great for us if the supply chain catches up to demand,” MacDonnell said.
Both understaffing and the increase in demand are contributing to stressful conditions for Bookstore employees. Bookstore employee Stefano Frank De Maria ’22 mentioned that stocking the shelves of the Bookstore is taking up a much larger portion of his job than it likely would have pre-pandemic. “Some days, if I’m being quite honest, the restocking process is akin to sweeping out floodwater with a broom. Everyone’s just feeling the crunch, man,” De Maria said.
According to MacDonnell, understaffing is not currently harming the Bookstore’s business due to recent student hires. However, the Bookstore is in need of two part-time permanent employees within the next few weeks. “For those particular positions we need permanent staff who can work all year to cover the many academic breaks,” MacDonnell said.
The way back to economic normalcy for small businesses in Gambier and across the nation is not entirely clear. Glandon noted he is unsure of how the economy should be expected to rebound from the labor market complications, as no recessions have been quite like this one in terms of its rapid recovery. “In fact, if anything, economists have been talking about why recession recovery seems to be so slow. … It’s going to take us a little time to sort this all out,” Glandon said.
According to Knox Pages, many businesses are attempting to reconfigure jobs to make them more rewarding through wage increases, referral bonuses, employee discounts, marketing redesigns and job postings across a number of mediums. OhioMeansJobs Knox County — an organization that assists employers in finding and retaining skilled workers, and helps job seekers find employment — is in the process of entering a contract to conduct a community employment needs assessment for the county, which is slated to be completed by March 2022.