Is low unemployment affecting food safety?

Michigan

WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Low unemployment is a good thing, but it has some unexpected consequences.

Help wanted signs are as common as menus at restaurants in West Michigan, which is a headache for owners. But the bigger problem is whether it could mean shortcuts when it comes to food safety.

“Being short-staffed increases stress within a restaurant, so we were able to make that connection that with the low unemployment rate within Ottawa County, it’s something we’ve been seeing more and more of,” Spencer Ballard, the Ottawa County Health Department’s food service supervisor, said.

At 2.7 percent, Ottawa County has the lowest unemployment rate in Michigan and that has led to problems for restaurants when it comes to hiring, troubles reflected statewide.

“Recruiting enough employees and the ability to retain those employees (is) the number one challenge for operators hands down,” said Justin Winslow, the president and CEO of the Lansing-based Michigan Restaurant Association.

It has even caused some restaurants to delay opening as they try to hire adequate staff.

And Ballard said owners are telling him that they are having trouble keeping up with the demands of health inspectors.

“We try to focus on the highest-risk violations, but we can’t neglect all of them, so low or high, we have standards that we have to meet regardless of employment status,” Ballard said.

Some 450,000 people work in Michigan restaurants and the Michigan Restaurant Association says pay has risen 6.7 percent in the last year, but the problem persists.

“It’s been very difficult, it’s been frustrating, trying to find good help. Me and the wife are here a lot more than we used to be,” said Will Karadchy, the owner Windy City Grille, a popular place for gyros and Italian beef sandwiches near Metro Hospital in Wyoming.

“The last couple of years have been really difficult,” Karadchy continued. “We get them in for an interview, we set a time, they don’t show up and even if they do show up for an interview … they don’t show up for work if we hire them.”

Despite the problems with hiring, Windy City Grille received a perfect score on its last health inspection, according to the Kent County Health Department’s website. That’s what needs to happen, health officials say.

“It’s making it a priority regardless of what your challenges are. It’s making sure food safety is at the forefront,” Ballard said.

He says food safety is not the place to be making cuts because an outbreak of foodborne illness can have a lasting impact on business.

“It might be deciding between getting food out to a customer more quickly or pausing to take an extra temperature before you do that,” Ballard said.

The Ottawa County Health Department provides a weekly email newsletter that lists the results of all inspections from that week as well as all new restaurant openings. You can sign up for it online by entering your email and choosing the public health topic “Food Safety Inspection Reports.” 

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