‘I would hire 100 people today if I could’: Sevier County businesses in need of employees

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE)– Heading down the Parkway in Sevier County, you’ll notice several “now hiring” signs.

Kelly Johnson, president and owner of the Johnson Family of Restaurants, said it’s always been hard to find employees in Sevier County, but especially since the pandemic.

“I think some people have left the industry, some people have moved and I think some people are still not comfortable,” Johnson said.

We first spoke with Johnson about employment issues in August 2020.

Then, she was closing some of her restaurants an extra day a week in order to give her employees a well-needed break.

“There are people who did not want to come back to work and so it’s a tight labor market made even more challenging by (the pandemic), and so you just had staffing issues everyday,” Johnson said back in August.

Over the winter break, Johnson said her restaurants could handle going back to the normal hours. However, the situation is now worse than before.

“We started by closing one day a week again, we started that in March. And then we found that was not enough,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Bennett’s BBQ isn’t serving breakfast, and the Alamo restaurants aren’t serving lunch Monday through Thursday.

As she said before, finding employees has always been tough in Sevier County.

Johnson said lack of affordable housing was partly to blame.

“(Sevier County) is a small town that hosts an incredible number of visitors, so it’s traditionally been tight. There’s also a lack of housing, in a way where people can get to work easily,” Johnson said.

Staff at Ober Gatlinburg said the same.

“We have struggled for years to obtain local employees. With the amount of jobs available and not enough people to fill the positions, it has always been a challenge. The housing market plays a big part in that. However, we are always trying to recruit local employees through varies outlets,” Tom Royther, marketing manager for Ober Gatlinburg, said.

Ryan DeSear, General Manager of U.S. Operations of Ripley’s Entertainment, said the housing in Gatlinburg has gotten a little better since the 2016 widlfires.

DeSear is also a city commissioner for Gatlinburg.

“We have several new apartment complexes and things like that, some of which are right downtown meaning all of it’s walkable to their jobs, which is very good,” DeSear said.

DeSear said there are several reasons for a lack of employees in Sevier County.

He agreed with one reason Johnson brought up: there are not enough people in the county to fill all the jobs.

Due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, J1 students, or foreign exchange students, weren’t able to fill the void.

“Even if you get the employee count in Sevier County, they’re all employed, you still do not have enough people to fill the jobs. So (J1 students) provided a very valuable kind of piece for us,” DeSear said.

DeSear believed another reason was because people were enjoying unemployment benefits.

“One of the things that we have found out too, is that, you know, they’re applying for a job, but they’re not accepting the job. I’m not sure why that is. I think that that probably has a lot to do with job seeking and unemployment, but that’s a state issue that they’re going to need to work on,” DeSear said.

However, according to the latest Tennessee unemployment report, there were fewer unemployment claims this week compared to the month before the pandemic closed everything down.

DeSear said Ripley’s is fortunate, in that they only need to fill a few positions.

He said, though, now that employers in the area are struggling to have enough employees to keep up with the amount of visitors coming into town, many are having to compete for workers.

That means salaries and benefits are at an all time high in the county.

DeSear said Ripley’s already had good benefits in place.

“A benefit that you don’t think about often is our company is 102 years old. So we’re not going anywhere. And we offer full employment year-round, so we’re not a job that lets you go in December and says see you later, come back in the Spring,” DeSear said.

Plus, he said, their employees are paid well, can visit other Ripley’s attractions for free, and can enjoy their jobs while working; such as watching the sea turtles play.

Johnson said she’s had to increase wages to entice possible new employees.

She’s also widening the age-range of who can work at her stores.

“We are trying to get 16 and 17-year-olds to come in and sort of get them, find people who are interested in a career in the service industry; and we’re starting them at what would traditionally have been the kind of pay that someone with a ton of experience would have gotten,” Johnson said.

Ober Gatlinburg has also had to hike up their wages.

“We have increased our minimum wages at Ober as a result of increased competition for local employees as have most of the attractions in town,” Royther said.

Johnson said since the COVID-19 vaccines have become more available, she has noticed some of her employees returning to work.

But, it’s not enough to open more tables or go back to a full operating schedule.

So, while they are looking to hire more workers, she asks visitors to be patient.

Just because a table looks open, doesn’t mean they have staff to wait on the customers at that table.

In the meantime, Johnson said if someone is looking for a job, they are more than welcome to apply.

“I would hire 100 people today if I could. That is a real number,” Johnson said.

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