Some restaurants struggle getting employees to leave unemployment benefits and return to work

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SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — From historic Beale Street to east Shelby County, Memphis-area restaurants and some employees are getting back to business.

“I’m glad it’s getting back to normal, slowly but surely,” restaurant employee Kevin Holbrook said.

But things aren’t quite the same. Some restaurants and clubs are seeing fewer guests.

Others are waiting for Phase 3 of Memphis’ Back to Business reopening plan, and some don’t think COVID-19 numbers have dropped to a safe level. Many restaurants are facing a new problem of finding new employees.

Ernie Mellor owns Hog Wild Catering and is president of the Memphis Restaurant Association.

“I heard of a folks who’ve had issues calling employees back and them declining to come back because they’re comfortable with the unemployment benefits they’re getting right now,” Mellor said.

The unemployment benefits versus returning to work debate is even being heard by tourists like Joe Cuffaro of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“We were at Graceland yesterday, and the driver of the bus said he was having a hard time getting his employees back because the benefits are better unemployed than employed,” Cuffaro said.

Malcolm Burt’s family owns Memphis Music on Beale, and they didn’t have to layoff any workers.

“I think the unemployment was definitely needed,” Burt said. “I think there should have been more time to think it out to make sure people who are working get as much as people staying at home.”

“With the federal subsidy of $600 a week plus a max of $275 from the state, those folks are sitting at home making $21.87, and they probably weren’t making that in our industry,” Mellor said.

But Mellor said those benefits won’t last forever.

“If I ask you to come back to me and ask you more than once and twice, and you decline, technically your unemployment benefits go away,” Mellor said. “I would hate for some to think they’re getting that money just because they’re sitting at home.”

It’s a new reality and a sign of the times for employees and businesses.

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