SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – The Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) reports Utah’s employment rate stands at 2.2 percent as of Friday morning. That’s the lowest it’s ever been in the state’s history. While that’s good news for people seeking jobs, some business owners say it’s been tough to fill vacant positions.

Mark Knold, Chief Economist for Utah DWS said the leisure and hospitality industries are struggling the most. You may have noticed it yourself — Restaurants and stores nearly everywhere posting “Help Wanted” signs or signs about long wait times for service. 

Jimmy Douangbupha opened up Tuk Tuk in West Valley City in April 2019, wanting to share his mom’s delicious Thai recipes with the community. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, it forced the restaurant to temporarily shut down and then scale back in its freshmen year of business.

“Majority of it hit more of our servers than our hosts. Just because we weren’t able to interact with anyone at the time. That was a pretty big hit for us,” he said.

Now that they’re back up and running at full capacity, they’re facing a different problem.

“As for staffing, it’s been really tough, just a lot of the servers and hosts are just kind of changing industries or finding better opportunities and not wanting to come back,” said Douangbupha. “We’re always looking for servers. My current staff now, gratefully, they’ve been with us since day one and have been picking up extra hours. Just putting in extra weight until we can find more people.”

He added, “We’ve also had to close Sundays and then close from 3 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays just to give our staff a break and allow for a shift change.”

According to experts, Douangbupha is not alone. The state is also seeing workers quit their jobs at unprecedented rates. Knold added that Utah and Idaho are the only states in the country that now have more jobs available after the pandemic. He compared it to what we’re seeing in the housing market with a high number of buyers competing for a small number of available listings.

“It’s either a buyer’s or a seller’s market. People are essentially selling labor right now and there’s not a lot of buyers. It’s a buyer’s market,” he said.

Multiple reasons exist for the worker shortage in certain industries. With the competitive job market and employers offering more incentives, some who normally work multiple part-time jobs are now only sticking to one full-time gig. Second, the fear of COVID exposure may deter some from high-contact jobs. Third, Knold said more people are starting up their own business instead of working for someone else.

“So people who may have got pushed to the sidelines during the COVID environment might not be coming back to an employer to hire them, they may already be starting something up on their own,” said Knold.

Medical experts also pointed to the fact that Utah’s lost more than 3,400 people to COVID and there are countless more who are suffering from Long COVID and may be struggling to return to the workforce.

Knold predicted that with the holidays coming up, the pinch will just get tougher for some businesses. As for consumers, expect longer waits, whether you’re shopping or dining out at your favorite restaurant. But overall, Knold said this extreme is a much better scenario than a recession.

 “At least we’re able to pay our bills in an environment like this,” he said.

As for the staff at Tuk Tuk, they said they’re grateful for the good business and they know this is a good problem to have. But until they can get to full staff, they ask that customers please continue with their understanding and patience.

“As long as we pull together and just kind of understand that under these circumstances, we’re all doing the best that we can,” he said.

So when will the supply of labor even out with the demand of labor in Utah? Knold predicts that won’t happen until we turn the tide with the COVID-19 pandemic. He also said we might see more companies turning to technology as a way to fill their labor needs.