Sevier County’s restaurant staffing problem not what you think (OPINION)

The Alamo in Gatlinburg

The Alamo in Gatlinburg is one of the many area restaurants currently operating under reduced hours in an effort to provide relief to their limited staff (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

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Ready your pitchforks readers, this won’t be a popular opinion. But I have some pretty interesting data to back up my theory.

That’s right, there’s going to be a bit of math involved, I apologize in advance.

As many of you already know, there is a severe staffing shortage currently plaguing the hospitality industry in Sevier County.

Signs like this one at Huck Finn’s Catfish in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., can be found throughout the area as restaurants, hotels and attractions struggle to find and retain staff.

Huck Finns in Pigeon Forge TN
Huck Finn’s Catfish in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. posted this picture on their Facebook page last week of an employee holding up a sign that reads “Short staffed, please be kind to our staff” (left photo, by Huck Finn’s, right photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The shift can be easily pinpointed to the spring of 2020, for reasons we are all well aware.

Sevier County’s booming tourism industry was brought to an abrupt halt and almost overnight, unemployment skyrocketed from an average 4% to almost 30%. 

Thousands of people were forced to find another way to make money or consider a major career change.

But something peculiar happened when local businesses, restaurants and attractions recently reopened their doors. 

The tourists returned, but the employees did not.

Read Also: One year ago: The eerie sights of abandoned Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg

The real reason employees are not returning to their former jobs

The reason I wanted to write this editorial is that I believe a disproportionate amount of blame on why workers are not returning to their old jobs is being placed on unemployment benefits.

I can feel you picking up those pitchforks already. But hear me out!

While unemployment benefits are likely keeping some people at home, because who wouldn’t prefer to stay at home while earning an extra $300 per week from the federal government, these people are likely in the minority.

The real problem is two-fold.

First, we have to remember that this is a market that sometimes relies on J-1 foreign exchange students to bridge the gap, which just isn’t an option right now due to global travel restrictions.

Second, and perhaps the biggest factor that no one is talking about, we also have a group of people who were forced to reevaluate their careers, and some of them simply found a better way.

But what about the ‘huge’ unemployment numbers?

According to the state of Tennessee, unemployment claims are not only returning to normal, they are a bit lower than they were before the shutdowns.

On March 14, 2020, right before all the craziness kicked off, there were an average of 881 weekly continued unemployment claims in Sevier County.

At the height of it in May of 2020, there were 12,554 weekly unemployment claims. And today, at the time of this writing, there are only 809 weekly unemployment claims.

That’s right, there are fewer people filing unemployment claims now than there were the week before the shutdowns.

The fact of the matter is, there is simply not a higher than average number of people “living off the government.” 

This chart shows that there were 881 weekly unemployment claims the week of March 14, 2020, over 12,000 in May of 2020 and 809 the week of April 17, 2021
This chart indicates there were 881 weekly unemployment claims the week of March 14, 2020, over 12,000 on May 20, 2020 and 809 the week of April 17, 2021 (graphic by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com, Source: tn.gov)

Why I quit my job

I’d say it’s a safe bet that most people have considered quitting their jobs at some point in their career.

But few ever actually work up the courage to proactively walk away.

The fear of something worse awaiting us on the other side is enough to keep us from exploring other opportunities.

As the old saying goes, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

But what happens when someone knocks that “bird” out of your hand and suddenly, your only option is to chase down those two metaphorical bush birds.

And that’s what I think happened in Sevier County. I believe a few people caught those birds.

Something similar happened to me back in 2017 when I made the conscious decision to walk away from a job that I hated.

It was scary at first. But I was able to find a new career that I loved. 

I also cut out the commute and drastically increased my income.

Today, I simply couldn’t imagine going back to that old job. 

If these former hospitality workers are anything like me, it’s quite possible that they too have simply found something better and perhaps closer to home. It’s possible they have no reason to go back.

After all, the hospitality industry can be brutal, and that is especially true in Sevier County. 

Customers can be difficult, and affordable housing is sparse. Many workers spend hours each day commuting in from other towns.

Truthfully, if the county really wanted to step up and help, adding more affordable housing for people who actually work in the county would be a huge leg up for both employees and employers alike.

What should business owners do in the meantime?

While business owners obviously know more about the inner workings of their own businesses better than I do, I think that employers will have to find a way to up their game. 

Whether that be offering better benefits, built-in tips, higher wages or just a better work environment, business owners will need to become more creative and competitive to attract and retain quality staff.

And the best way to start that process, in my humble opinion, is to simply ask the people what they need. 

Call your former employees and ask them what you can do to incentivize a return. Ask your current staff for suggestions on what you can do to make their lives a little better. Ask prospective employees about what they are looking for. Post the question on Facebook.

Start the dialogue, and the answers might just surprise you.

What can customers do to relieve the burden?

We, as customers and patrons, can also help out by remembering to be kind and generous to local hospitality workers and wait staff.

It has been a hard couple of years for everyone. We can each do our own part by treating each other with grace and respect.

Read Also: Through rainy days and controversies, Dollywood deserves our support

Have you or someone you know recently left a job in the hospitality industry? Are you an area business currently suffering from staffing shortages? Tell us your story in the comments, we would love to hear from you.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at info@thesmokies.com for questions or comments.

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6 thoughts on “Sevier County’s restaurant staffing problem not what you think (OPINION)”

  1. That is all well and good. But you did not figure in surrounding countries like, Cocke, Jefferson, Blount, and Knox where most of the employees for the county live.

  2. That is a good critique but if you look at the numbers for the neighboring counties that you mentioned, the unemployment numbers follow the exact same pattern. I’m a manager in Pigeon Forge for a very large Food and Beverage operation and it has been so extremely difficult to hire and retain staff. There’s currently an arms race going on by employers trying to entice and steal what labor is available through increasing wages very rapidly.

    Now I think higher wages for the area is fantastic for everyone honestly but the housing market like writer mentioned has got to speed up with more apartments and affordable accomodations to meet the fastly increasing demands of the businesses.

  3. I’ve been in the hospitality business for over 20 years. Never in my life have I seen people so rude, hateful and down right mean as they are now! The younger people are leaving for other jobs because they aren’t paid to be abused!

  4. There are J1s working here! Dollywood and other businesses have them. One thing I have noticed is discrimination by younger employees for the older employers. There is a lack of respect and a unnecessary feeling by young employees that the older employee wants their position. This is usually not the case just trying to supplement their income or stay busy and not be sedentary. Employees or supervisors many themselves don’t even notice

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