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[whitespace] Worker shortage at local restaurants grows as cost of living continues to skyrocket

Cupertino--For Gabriel Oller of Clarke's Charcoal Broiler in Cupertino, having a booth at the annual Taste of Cupertino means recruiting family and friends to help out. As many other restaurant owners in the area, Oller has a difficult time finding staff to work at his restaurant.

Unfortunately for food-lovers, the popular Taste of Cupertino, scheduled for Aug. 12, did not take place this year. The event, sponsored by the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce, usually consists of 10 to 13 restaurants that gather to share samples of their food with thousands of people. Linda Asbury, Executive Director of the Chamber, said only four restaurants were able to commit to participating in this year's event.

"Last month we started calling restaurants and we were getting 'no's' to participating," Asbury said. "When we asked specifically why, the answer was lack of staff."

Although this is the first time in seven years the event has been canceled, Asbury and local restaurant owners said there was a problem with staffing for the Taste last year, as well. Organizers have rescheduled the event for next summer.

"Last year I got family members to help," Oller said. "I'm glad they postponed it. It's hard to get out of the restaurant, and I was going to have to run back and forth."

Oller said his staffing problem is with cooks. Although he has two cooks that have been with him for 12 years, when they both leave at the end of the year, it will be difficult to hire new ones.

The Chamber attributes the cancellation of this year's Taste to the "booming economy." Help wanted signs posted in many store windows in the area support the chamber's conclusion: Restaurant owners, along with other businesses, are having difficulty hiring and keeping staff simply because the wages they can offer aren't enough. With the cost of living in the Bay Area increasing, very few people are able to live on such a small salary.

Oller said he pays trainee cooks $8 an hour, $12 an hour once they are trained. He said every restaurant in the Bay Area is hurting for good staff. "You can't live on $12 an hour unless your spouse is working and making at least the same amount," Oller said. "Then you might be able to exist, but the rent now is unreal."

Most restaurants pay their serving staff minimum wage, or $5.75 an hour. Servers also make money from tips, which generally range from 10 to 20 percent of the amount of food they sell during a shift.

Bill Sullivan, owner of the Outback Steakhouse in Cupertino, said although he planned on participating in this year's Taste of Cupertino, it would have been tough. He said holding the event on a different weekend, such as the Fourth of July, or on a slower day of the week might allow more restaurants to participate.

In addition to the high cost of living in the area, Sullivan attributes the staffing problem to a shrinking work force.

"The problem in all industries is that the work force in general is shrinking, and the restaurant industry gets hit first by a lack of workers," Sullivan said. "I don't know how my servers do it, the cost of living is so high."

Sullivan also mentioned the effect staffing problems have on quality of service. He said the beginning and end of summer are the biggest times for staff turnaround because of the high number of students they hire for the summer.

"If you can't staff the restaurant, people end up working more than they want to and taking on more duties," Sullivan said. "It definitely affects the quality of service, and it is a morale issue."

With rent on the rise and help wanted signs popping up all over Cupertino and other Bay Area cities, the future of the nontechnology workers living in this area looks grim. For some families, affordable housing, although limited, is a possibility.

Pat Palumbo, from Cupertino Community Services, said efforts are being made to create affordable housing for those who have difficulty affording the cost of living in Cupertino. The Below Market Rate (BMR) housing program is one such effort.

According to Palumbo, there are 64 units in four different apartment complexes in Cupertino designated as affordable housing through the BMR program. Those who wish to apply for these units when they become available must live or work in Cupertino, or be a full-time student at De Anza College, and they must have a job. Palumbo said if an individual or family qualifies financially, they will go on a waiting list, which can be as long as eight months to a year. Eligibility varies depending on family size and income. For example, a family of three whose total income is $51, 250 or less is considered a low-income family. A family of three whose total income is less than $39,150 is considered a very low-income family. The screening and qualifying for the program is done in accordance with the income guidelines printed by HUD each April.

"Rents have risen way beyond salaries," Palumbo said. "There has been a dramatic increase in demand for affordable housing, and the city is making every effort to create more."

Palumbo said the average price for a two-bedroom apartment in Cupertino is between $950 and $1,100 a month. Through the BMR program, eligible families can rent an apartment for around $150 to $200 less per month.

Donna Krey, Public Information Officer for Cupertino City Hall, said that through the BMR program there is a requirement for new apartment complexes to designate 10 percent of the apartments as affordable housing.

"We don't have enough land to be developed further," Krey said. "The programs we have still don't come near to meeting the demand for providing affordable housing."

According to Palumbo, the city is planning for more affordable housing, which will be available in the next year and a half.

Sullivan said the number of help-wanted signs are directly in relation to the cost of living.

"If people aren't making six figures, they leave this area," Sullivan said.

Oller, whose restaurant has been famous for burgers since 1945, said he's always looking for people interested in being a cook.

"I'm always asking people if they know anyone who wants a job, if they want to learn the trade, but it's difficult," Oller said.

Oller said he hopes he won't have the same staffing problem for next year's Taste of Cupertino, but would participate anyway, as long as a cook was available to prepare good food.

"The staffing problem doesn't seem to be getting any better," Oller said. "If worst comes to worst, I'll do it without staff from the restaurant."
Melissa Matchak

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