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Businesses struggle as many workers are either out sick with COVID-19 or on vacation

Inflation, job market hurting small businesses
MoneyWatch: Small business owners say inflation and the job market are making it difficult to stay afloat 05:15

Companies across the U.S. are contending with acute staffing challenges as some workers call out sick with COVID-19 while others take planned summer vacations

The latest wave of COVID-19 infections, driven by the spread of the BA.5 subvariant, has left some businesses so short-staffed that they've had to reduce their normal business hours or even close temporarily. 

Robert Fleming, owner of Capri Club in Los Angeles which opened in June, said he has so few workers that in addition to owning the restaurant, he's also bussing tables.

"I'm the owner-operator and now that means I'm the busboy, the food runner and I'm sweeping and mopping. It means that everyone's got to pitch in and you do what you got to do to keep the doors open," Fleming told CBS MoneyWatch. 

"Barely getting by as it is"

Earlier this month, after a number of his staffers were either exposed to or infected with COVID-19, Fleming had to close the restaurant for a night. 

"Many staffers were exposed and got sick, and with a skeleton crew, you have no backups," he said. "If someone goes on vacation or calls in sick and you're barely getting by as it is, then you have to make the decision as to whether or not you keep your doors open."

Restaurateurs and other business owners across the U.S. are fielding increased calls from workers who say they can't come to work because they have coronavirus. 

From June 29 to July 11, 3.9 million Americans said they did not work because they had COVID-19 or were caring for someone with symptoms, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey. That's more than double the 1.8 million people who didn't work for the same reasons during the same period last year. 

In addition to being absent from work due to COVID-19, employees are also taking planned summer breaks. 

During the same week as the Census Bureau's household survey, 4.8 million U.S. workers took vacation or personal days, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's up from 3.7 million workers who took time off during the same period a year earlier. 

Airline staffing shortages worsen summer travel chaos 02:29

Trading restaurant work for the gig economy

Many business owners were already challenged by staffing shortages before the new COVID subvariant arrived, just as the summer season was swinging into gear.

Fleming acknowledged an exodus of restaurant industry workers who, at the beginning of the pandemic, traded their jobs for more flexible gig economy work. 

"Peoples' lifestyles changed and operating a restaurant at night is maybe not as enticing as it once was for someone's employment," he said. "A lot of back-of-house staff found other jobs in the gig economy or driving for Uber or doing other work during the day, and they get to go home and spend time with their families at night. It's hard for those people to come back to going home at 12 or 1 in the morning."

Loyalty pays off

Americans are also taking the opportunity to travel internationally again, finally taking trips originally scheduled for the summer of 2020. 

Steven Hartenstein, who operates Lucca Osteria & Bar in Oak Brook, Illinois, said that all things considered, he is relatively well-staffed. 

"We are fortunate to have a decent amount of loyalty," he told CBS MoneyWatch. "About 70% of my original staff is still with me, which for this industry and these times is pretty huge."

Still, this past Tuesday, Hartenstein found himself short three servers, a bartender and a busser. 

Two of the servers and the busser were on vacation. The bartender had recently quit and an additional server was sick with a cold. 

The rest of the team rallied: the restaurant's general manager tended bar and a hostess helped clear tables. 

It was a record night of business at Lucca Osteria.

"We got through it and it was actually a great night," Hartensteain said. "We don't mind being hands-on but it's tough and you struggle. You can't do it every night."

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