Tourism dollars have flowed through Whidbey Island this year like never before. The amount of lodging and sales taxes collected have been off the chart despite the pandemic.
But at the same time, many restaurants have had trouble thriving, even when COVID-related restrictions were eased. Many restaurants have limited hours and other went on hiatus. The trouble is a lack of willing and able employees.
It’s a nationwide problem as low-wage workers are refusing to return to many lower-paid, thankless and challenging jobs. There are an estimated 10 million open positions in the nation while 8.5 million people remain on unemployment. The end of benefits hasn’t changed the situation.
On Whidbey Island, a worker shortage was a problem prior to the pandemic, especially in Langley and Coupeville. The people who are doing the work that keeps the community going can’t afford to live in the communities.
The answer for Whidbey restaurants is both simple and difficult.
Workers simply need a livable wage, not just a living wage. Pegging exactly what this is on the island varies, but it’s helpful to remember that McDonald’s in Oak Harbor — the least expensive place to live on the island — is advertising $18 an hour jobs.
In addition, workers need full-time hours and perhaps health insurance. And businesses definitely should not mess with tips that servers receive.
The difficult part is that restaurant prices will need to go up. That won’t be a problem for tourists and all the well-to-do people who are moving to the island. Higher prices won’t stop them from buying a steak, a beer, or fish and chips galore.
Some restaurants across the nation are charging “living wage” fees in order to pay staff better.
Restaurants, however, don’t want to price out regular locals, who they still rely on — especially during the winter months.
Owners, however, should trust that residents are willing to pay more because they care about their communities and the people who work hard for a living. We all want our favorite restaurants to stay open.
In fact, residents should make a point of going to locally owned restaurants and bars. They should treat workers with respect — being rude to servers is not acceptable — and make sure to tip, even if prices are higher.
Hopefully, other industries, especially local governments, will follow suit and reconsider wages for the lowest paid people, so everyone can afford a good burger and a locally brewed ale after work.