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Milwaukee's fast food restaurants are struggling to hire and retain workers

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58)- Some fast food drive-thru restaurants in the Milwaukee area were seen with signs posted notifying customers they're closed early, due to a worker shortage.

McDonald’s owner Jeff Steren says he's lucky he's never had to shut down any of his drive-thru locations, but he does agree there is a need for more workers. Steren owns and operates 16 McDonald’s locations in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties.

This summer, McDonald’s plans on hiring 700 more workers.  

"They’re hiring 700 just for Milwaukee, and sometimes I feel like the numbers could be higher. Could I use 70 workers or even 100 workers spread across all those restaurants? Absolutely," said Steren.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association says the worker shortage affects all restaurants, not just fast food. Quam says the worker shortage has gotten worse the last few years.  

"As restaurants are working their way through this, you're going to see times where the restaurant will close for a day or other times, in order to cope with the shortage and not burn out the workers they already have on their team," said Susan Quam, Executive Vice President of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.    

The challenge isn't just hiring workers, it's keeping them. Labor statistics show in 2016, restaurant turnover rates were above 70-percent, and now it's at a whopping 150-percent.

"Staffing varies from place to place. In my restaurant on 1st Street and National Avenue, I'm doing fine. In my restaurant on North and Oakland Avenue, we have enough employees, but we're hiring continuously and losing continuously," adds Steren.  

Economics experts say it's because young, tech-savvy workers are finding lucrative opportunities with companies like Amazon. Record low unemployment rates don't help either. Incentives like college tuition offered by McDonald’s and Taco Bell hope to hire and retain workers, but experts say restaurants need to offer better pay and growth opportunities.

"Take an example from an internet based company like Amazon, they pay better and they attract young workers. Or think about something standard like Starbucks. The opportunities that they offer to younger employees for promotion and then being retained are significantly different than what you could expect in a regular fast-food restaurant,” said Avik Chakrabarti, Economics Associate Professor at UW-Milwaukee.

"It's a balancing act,” said Steren. “You know, trying to pay the right wage that is going to satisfy your employees and having the right pricing that’s going to be of value to your customers still."

Steren says he hires year-round, but one of the most challenging seasons for hiring and managing workers comes in the fall when school begins.


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