Coronavirus: Reopening restaurants struggle to bring back employees


(CNN) - Some businesses are reopening after remaining shuttered for weeks due to the coronavirus, while others are weighing their options.

They face a new challenge - convincing workers to come back. Many businesses were paying their employees so little that unemployment pays better.

It's been five weeks since Kurt Huffman closed 20 of his ChefStable Group restaurants, furloughing 700 employees. His emotions were still raw as he discussed it.

"It's a very visceral experience to create something, and so it just feels incredibly powerful to have to shut it all down," he said.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on businesses and employees, with tens of millions of Americans already filed for unemployment and millions more expected.

But as some states reopen, businesses are starting to rehire.

"Once the $600 (unemployment) federal money started arriving, we just noticed that it was almost impossible to get people to come back to work," Huffman said.

The federal stimulus gives unemployed workers an extra $600 a week through July.

Unemployment now pays equal to or more than average weekly wages in 38 states, including Oregon where Huffman owns restaurants.

"Our employees are confronted with a decision, which is, 'Do I want to go back in to work in an environment that I'm not exactly positive is safe because there's no testing available and make less money?'" he said. "So, the obvious answer is no way, why would you do that? You know, I wouldn't do that if I was them."

The reality of unemployment paying better than restaurant work comes after years of attempts to raise the minimum wage to a livable amount.

Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist at Economic Policy Institute, said many low-wage and front line workers lost their jobs quickly due to social distancing measures, like restaurant workers, hotel workers and event workers.

"In some cases, those workers can actually earn more on unemployment than they were in their old jobs, which does just highlight, we had a wage problem in these jobs before this crisis ever happened," Shierholz said.

In Minnesota, Christian Ochsendorf owns five Dunn Brothers Coffee shops. Revenue is down 85%, and he furloughed 46 of his 60 employees, but his businesses are slowly coming back online.

"We have been trying to bring people back, especially our key employees, because I mean it costs us about $3,500 per employee to train them," Ochsendorf said.

Employees also face new challenges beyond health concern, like home-schooling kids or taking care of loved ones.

With limited and uncertain work hours to offer, Ochsendorf says rehiring has been more challenging.

"That'd be like any other employer that's paying more in wages - where would that employee go?" he said. "You know, they're going to do what's best for their family."

Minnesota plans to lift its stay-at-home order next week, while Oregon continues to evaluate.

"It's like, do I want to reopen in the context where I have to ask my employees to come back to work and take a pay cut?" Huffman said. "I don't think it's fair to ask people to come back when there's no testing available."

Copyright 2020 CNN. WGCL, WPLG and Getty Images contributed to the report. All rights reserved.