(From left, front): Bessie’s Diner customers Sadie Allison and Ben Kisla chat with Manager Jamie Keraka and server Holly Schoessow. Like many area restaurants, Bessie’s Diner is struggling to find staff after the pandemic.

BELOIT — Plenty of job opportunities await high school and college students and employment seekers this summer in the wake of a worker shortage in the tourism industry.

“Every hotel and restaurant is looking to hire people immediately,” said Visit Beloit CEO Celestino Ruffini. “It seems like the demand for travel is there and has returned, but we have to have the staff to work front desks, in restaurants and serving, cleaning and offering a positive customer service experience. Without people, the economy can only grow so far before it plateaus. It could become a significant issue this summer if our local businesses are not able to fill all the positions.”

Wisconsin’s return to near pre-pandemic unemployment levels has brought with it a workforce shortage, spurring Republicans to demand the state end its participation in enhanced federal pandemic unemployment benefits. The most recent stimulus legislation, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), expanded benefits to provide qualifying Americans with $300 a week in addition to state unemployment benefits through Sept. 6, 2021. Some GOP-led states are ending the benefit, claiming it de-incentivizes returning to work. Meanwhile, liberals are citing the need for structural changes to offer higher wages and adequate child care to get more people back to work. Bars, restaurants, hotels and tourism and the tourism industry are facing the greatest shortages, according to the Associated Press.

April data shows that Wisconsin’s total non-farm jobs increased by 9,300 over the month, while private-sector jobs increased by 8,200 over the same period. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate in April was 3.9%, while the national unemployment rate in April was 6.1%, according to the The Department of Workforce Development at

Fabian Gonzalez, general manager of the Milwaukee Grill at 2601 Morse St., Janesville is one restaurant operator who is seeking summer help.

“Please come out and apply. We need you,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez is seeking two hostesses, a bartender, a full-time manager and two people to bus tables, but no one is applying for the positions. Gonzalez said Milwaukee Grill is one of the higher paying restaurants in Janesville, starting at $15 to $16 an hour for its rookie cooks and he’s a bit perplexed.

“We are one of the busiest places in town and have a good reputation. At least 75% of customers are regulars we see up to five times a week,” Gonzalez said.

Milwaukee Grill closed at the start of the pandemic for two months with employees being laid off. It then reopened for curbside pickup for 28 days before fully reopening with 12 fewer tables to give people more space. At the time the restaurant brought back about 85 to 90% of its staff.

In mid-January, typically a slower month, the number of customers started to significantly increase. During April and May sales are back to the level of 2019.

“Because we have a patio, I’m expecting a killer summer,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said he believes the additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits has had an impact on staffing with some people getting a little too comfortable.

“There are plenty of jobs out there. Why don’t you go and work? “ he asked.

It’s also been a challenging year for BOXCARS Pub & Grub, 108 Allen St., Clinton, which was seeking employees prior to the pandemic.

“It’s been a constant battle of trying to find people that want to work,” said BOXCARS Pub & Grub owner Tim Pogorelski.

Due to the strong support of the community, Pogorelski said business remained stable during the early days of the pandemic with deliveries and carry-outs. The last few months business has significantly increased as the restaurant opened the outdoor theater known as The LOT where groups can gather for live music. The spot will have some country music artists this summer, with capacity for more than 300 people.

“People are ready to get out and do stuff,” Pogorelski said.

BOXCARS currently has openings for dishwashing and stocking, bussing tables and bartending.

While Pogorelski said there wasn’t much turnover in the past with employees working there for eight to 10 years or more, it’s changing.

“One person got hired only to not show up again or even call,” Pogorelski said. “We are trying to get people in, and it’s rapid withdrawals.”

Pogorelski said he believes some of the problem stems from additional unemployment benefits available.

The lack of workers has made it difficult for existing employees.

“We have people working here as a second job, and it’s hard to ask much more of them than what they already do. You don’t want to burn them out. and the remaining employees deserve time off,” he said.

Geronimo Hospitality Group COO Jeff Whiteman said the company has about 30 job openings at its restaurants in Beloit and Janesville including: Merrill & Houston’s Steak Joint, Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar, truk’t, Velvet Buffalo Cafe and Hotel Goodwin and Bessie’s Diner at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville.

“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, and I’ve never seen it like this,” Whiteman said.

Whiteman said some staff left the industry at the beginning of the pandemic and found other work.

“And there is a percentage of people who chose not to go back to work as long as they receive benefits,” he said.

It’s especially challenging for Geronimo restaurant managers who are starting to see banquet business and dining room traffic return. Whiteman said the demand for employees is almost triple what it typically is. Positions are open for servers, bartenders, cooks and more. Whiteman said there have been employees telling the company they won’t return until their benefits run out and he believes it plays a role in the worker shortage.

Those with the company are working with current employees to help recruit and they are putting the plea for help out on every social media platform.

“We are trying a little of everything,” Whiteman said.

Whiteman said there is a perception that restaurant work is a “stopover” rather than a place to build a career.

“We are proud that half of our general managers started out in an hourly role. It’s a great opportunity for people who like to be of service to others. The more people we can find and develop and grow the better,” he said.

Bessie’s Diner General Manager Jamie Keraka said it’s been challenging when more staff are needed, although the team is making the best of it. Some former employees found other jobs. Also, some employees who are parents have been challenged as they return to work because they have had to do online schooling with their children this year.