Employee drought leaves local businesses understaffed and unprepared

An series of unfortunate circumstances have created the perfect storm for local businesses.


Justin Ha

Mikuni is closing on Mondays due to being short staffed. This is one of the many sacrifices that businesses need to make to adapt to a smaller staff.

If you walk into any of the seven Mikunis in California that CEO, Taro Arai, owns, you will find a busy sushi restaurant bustling with activity. Patrons clumsily pick up their sushi rolls, while chefs cheer aloud for each new customer that walks through the door.

But behind the scenes, there is an ongoing battle to find and maintain enough employees to keep up with the constant demand. Unfortunately, the cracks are starting to show.

Taro Arai is the Chief Dreaming Officer of the Mikuni Restaurant Group. His story of the employee drought begins with the COVID-19 pandemic, which rampaged through the restaurant industry.

Last year the restaurant industry made $240 billion less than originally forecasted, leading to the permanent closure of around 10% of American restaurants.

“The hardest thing going through with COVID was the unknown. I don’t know what to prepare. We can’t plan ahead,” Arai said. “I have all these plans, but we don’t know if we can really do it.”

Uncertainty has been an all-encompassing theme throughout the pandemic which has seeped into every corner of the restaurant industry. Economics professor David Lang attributes the large shortage of employees to this uncertainty.

Restaurants are worried about staying in business and so are nervous about increasing their costs with higher wages,” Lang said. “People are nervous about taking jobs in restaurants that may not be in business.”

Additionally, the federal unemployment benefit programs under the CARES act allowed many employees to forgo working while not sacrificing their income.

“Nobody wants to work. Since the government has been giving them money to stay home rather than going to work, it was becoming impossible to find employees,” local business owner Raj Cheema said. “To be honest, if somebody is getting free money to sit home, obviously they would take advantage of it.”

The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program (PEUC) was part of the CARES act and provided a $600 per week benefit for the unemployed who met specific requirements until Dec. 2020. This policy was later extended until Sept. of this year, with an additional $300 per week coming from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program (FPUC).

“(People) would rather not work because they get more money from the government than what they used to make,” owner of the Oriental Market, Richard Callueng said.

The PEUC program terminating this month doesn’t necessarily entail a return to form for businesses. 

Steven Bliss, the director of digital strategy at the Public Policy Institute of California, said that economists are not sure what will be the widespread reaction to the PEUC program ending.

“Early evidence from states that ended benefits over the summer suggests that it did not increase employment,” Bliss said.

Nobody wants to work. Since the government has been giving them money to stay home rather than going to work, it was becoming impossible to find employees. To be honest, if somebody is getting free money to sit home, obviously they would take advantage of it.

— Raj Cheema

These reasons for a drop in workers don’t fully encapsulate the full picture of why Mikuni restaurants are struggling to maintain staff.

“Some people had a chance to study and get a license to move onto other careers,” Arai said.

Furthermore, Mikuni’s inability to meet demand has led to employees quitting to grab loose, potential profits.

“I’m pretty booked up all the way till the end of Dec. for catering private parties. I trained like three or four people and they just opened their own catering company because they know the demand,” Arai said. “I can’t catch up so they have their own (catering company) so they can get all the money themselves.”

All of these overlapping problems have created the perfect storm for Arai and left his eight locations understaffed for their customers.

“If we can have 100 people  that is okay…but right now we are not even close, especially in the kitchen,” Arai said.

Less manpower means sacrifices for Mikuni Restaurant Group. With fewer chefs, the menu needed to be shortened because of the time it takes to prepare each side dish.

The restaurant has also started closing earlier and not opening on Mondays, a change that will run up until Nov. 15.

On top of this, Mikuni was forced to cancel many of their events and end collaboration with DoorDash to keep up with demand.

All of these compromises are lost profits for the Mikuni Restaurant Group and millions of other businesses like it in the U.S.

The worker shortage has caused massive strain on businesses and their owners alike. Long hours and difficult decisions have been commonplace during the pandemic.

“I had to work long hours and move around quite a lot. I had barely any time to spend with my family,” Cheema said. “The people that were working had to be offered more money in order to ensure they wouldn’t quit and stay home as well.”

It is also the current staff that is feeling the effects of their ex-coworkers’ absences. Employees now have to work in overdrive to cover jobs that would originally be done by multiple people. 

“We have to watch over (the staff’s) mental health,” Arai said. “Physically they are exhausted because they have to cover for the people that are not there.”

Even in a challenging and competitive market, Arai is hopeful that the employee drought will eventually end.

“I am a dreamer so I am very hopeful. We will find a way to overcome this,” Arai said. “I love the restaurant business. I love what I do. I have the confidence that other people love to work in restaurants too so we are just waiting for those people.”

This isn’t just hopeful thinking. Lang also believes that a resurgence of workers in the service industry is due; it will just take some time.

“Over time, people and businesses will adjust. It will just take time for everyone to settle back into a new normal,”  Lang said. “There were huge labor shifts after 9/11, for example. But, much of these changes went away in the months and years since then.”

As many businesses adapt to the struggles of the pandemic, Arai focuses on the Japanese term “kaizen.” 

It means “continuous improvement.”