Labor Shortages, Supply Chain Disruptions Affect Oberlin Businesses


Gigi Ewing

Nationwide labor shortages and supply chain disruptions have caused Oberlin businesses to alter their regular operations.

Business owners around Oberlin are struggling to hire workers and acquire certain products as labor shortages and supply chain disruptions affect businesses across the nation. In town, shuttered properties, such as those previously housing restaurants that closed down during the pandemic, have remained closed as a result of these post-COVID-19 economic issues.

According to Executive Director of the Oberlin Business Partnership Janet Haar, fluctuations in business operations elicited by the pandemic have led to layoffs and high job-turnover rates.

“Restaurants, for instance, couldn’t keep people on when they didn’t have business, so they had to let people go,” Haar said. “But some of our local companies — General Plug — for instance, they have almost doubled their business during this time. But then they can’t find people to fill jobs.”

According to the most recent U.S. Census Small Business Pulse Survey, from Nov. 15–21, 33.7 percent of businesses have had difficulty hiring paid workers. This issue is most prevalent in accommodation and food services, 61.5 percent of which report difficulty hiring paid workers.

Haar described the ways in which these nationwide economic issues have been affecting Oberlin’s small businesses and industry. Though the issue is prevalent in the accommodation and food service businesses located in downtown Oberlin, Haar stated that the issue is widespread across Oberlin’s economy.

“Oberlin is a small microcosm of what’s happening all over the United States and the world,” she said. “You’ve seen restaurants like The Feve say, ‘We’re going to close on Mondays for a while, or we’re not gonna be able to offer tacos anymore because it takes too much to prepare them and we don’t have the people.’ Or Slow Train [Cafe], that had to close down when Oberlin student employees left, because they didn’t have enough employees — and we hear that everywhere. Oberlin IGA is still about seven employees down from what they really need. And you can see signs for our industrial companies like Hydro Tube [Enterprises] and General Plug, and the companies in the industrial park — pretty much every one of them has a sign out saying ‘Help Wanted.’”

The labor shortages have also made it hard to open new businesses — restaurants in particular. Two restaurant businesses, Black River Cafe and Oberlin Kitchen, have permanently closed due to the pandemic and remain unoccupied. According to Haar, this is partially a result of the labor shortages as well as the return to what she dubs the post-COVID-19 “now-normal.”

“Most restaurants are not even back to where they were before,” Haar said. “So the thought of opening another one right now, when it’s very hard to find help, is not great. We’re lucky that Bistro Bella Luna and The Arb [at Tappan Square] came into town and they both seem to be doing pretty well, but it’s a big decision … to start a restaurant, which generally do not have very high net profits.”

Businesses currently navigating these issues have had to make changes to their normal operations. Owner of Slow Train Cafe and The Local Coffee & Tea Jessa New, OC ’01, had to change her business’ normal operating hours in order to make up for staff shortages even after students returned to Oberlin.

“When COVID-19 hit, it basically put a huge roadblock up in terms of that natural kind of in and out of old employees who are graduating and new employees coming in,” she said. “So I kind of lost that rhythm. When things came back this semester, … I didn’t have a full staff again right away. … It’s not just a case of having somebody in there with a pulse; it’s actually having someone in there who you take the time to train. They understand the shops and how they work and our expectations. It’s a good three-to-four week process to really get a new person acclimated.”

There are many businesses that cannot rely on a steady stream of College student applicants. Krista Long, owner of Ben Franklin and MindFair Books, stated that while she was able to easily find new clerks for her stores, finding longer-term skilled labor has proven difficult.

“I’m happy with the clerk and floor staff,” she said. “We have a good vibe here. Everyone works well together. I like the youthfulness of the staff. But I do need a database manager and another buyer and somebody who can manage all of the creative stuff, like the frame shop and the fabric and the yard. Those are the jobs I’m finding challenging.”

Another national-level challenge Oberlin business are facing is supply chain disruptions. As the economy recovers from the pandemic, the logistics industry has struggled to keep up with soaring demand for products. Supply chain bottlenecks — ranging from a shortage of truckers to a lack of space at ports and warehouses — have meant that businesses and consumers are facing empty shelves and long delays for items.

According to Long, whose businesses rely on an eclectic supply of products, it has been a challenge to keep certain products in stock as a result of supply chain issues.

“It’s been kind of interesting to watch how it evolves, because we carry such a breadth of merchandise,” she said. “First, during the pandemic, certain things were just gone. Those we can get fine now. Just one after another — one month, it’s microwave meals, and God knows why, but all brands: really low supply. Then, it’s tampons and menstrual products. … When something has gone out of stock, it stays out of stock for a long time. I reach out around, try to find another source for it, or sometimes I just can’t find it, and that’s the way it is. And then it’s available again. So that’s been frustrating and difficult to deal with.”

However, both Long and New expressed their gratitude for the Oberlin community’s continued support of their businesses amid these problems, as well as their hope for more stability in the future. Yet, according to Long, these problems are a characteristic of the global economy and have only been highlighted by the pandemic.

“By and large, our customers are very understanding and continue to support us, so we’re hoping that evens out,” she said. “But to be honest I think we’re looking at the weaknesses of the supposedly global economy that we have.”