Sickie’s Garage Burgers and Brews was more than just a job for Cassi Bernal.
“That was home,” Bernal said. “That was everything I knew.”
Bernal, a server at Sickies, had worked there since December 2017. She built relationships with her coworkers and even the regulars.
“The guests that would come in… You build your relationships with them,” Bernal said. “You get to know them, and they get to know you. It’s an everlasting circle. We had a lot of people who would come in specifically to sit in certain (servers’) sections, or just because they knew a couple people who worked there, and they wanted to give the business their money, because of the servers and bartenders that were there.”
Sickies has become the latest casualty to hiring issues in the region. It opened in 2017 and sat at 121 DeMers Ave. in East Grand Forks where the historic Whitey’s Wonderbar previously operated.
The restaurant announced it was closing effective immediately via its Facebook page on Saturday, Aug. 28. The post cited, "…the initial pandemic shutdown and the ongoing staffing issues experienced thereafter…" as reasons why the business closed its doors.
Bernal said some of Sickies’ staff was notified Friday, Aug. 27, the store would be closing Sunday night, but it closed Saturday night instead. She said she was not informed Saturday was her last shift until it was over.
“I didn’t know anything about any of this,” Bernal said. “You’re going to work, you’re doing what you do, and then you have a couple of guests asking, ‘How do you feel about closing?’ And we were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ That’s when they hit us with the news.”
In the restaurant industry, not giving staff much notice of closing is standard practice to reduce theft in a business’s waning days. But now, Bernal is left looking for another job to help support her family.
“I’m just seeing where I can fit in,” Bernal said. “I guess I can’t say everything is going to be exactly how it was at Sickies, so I guess I’m just trying to find the next thing that I can move on with and hopefully make that home for the future.”
Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, said he had no idea Sickies was going to be closing, but that it didn’t necessarily surprise him either.
“In this day and age, you just never know with labor and availability,” Wilfarht said. “It’s so tough to find workers. There’s just so many factors that it’s a challenge to be in business right now. There’s no question about it.”
Wilfahrt said one factor that could have an impact on hiring in North Dakota is the state’s extension of unemployment benefits. Minnesota’s $300 per week supplemental unemployment benefits ended Sept. 4.
“I think that just from a regulatory point of view, North Dakota was a little more friendly,” Wilfahrt said. “I think if you look at the $300 extended unemployment from the federal government, the North Dakota governor ended that at the end of May, and in Minnesota, it ends in September. So, trying to hire employees back in Minnesota has been tougher than it’s been in North Dakota. But, even with that said, that has some effect, but that’s not the magic workforce bullet, either. That’s just another one of those contributing factors where Minnesota is less favorable than North Dakota, but labor is tight everywhere.”
Tim Moeri, branch manager of HireQuest in Grand Forks, has seen an uptick in people looking for less permanent employment.
“Right now, basically they’re looking for day labor, day work, day pay… They’re here in the now,” Moeri said. “A lot of people are still depending on the federal funding, so they don’t want to commit to a full-time job.”
HireQuest has been around for more than 30 years with branches in 35 states. It is a temporary staffing service provider, but Moeri said its location in Grand Forks is also keen to help people find permanent employment.
Moeri, who worked as a restaurant manager for nine years before working for HireQuest, said HireQuest has recruited some employees for restaurants such as Applebee’s, Culver’s and T.G.I. Fridays, but fast food restaurants are usually unable to get help.
“We only do a handful of fast food restaurants due to the expense of a temp agency usually going above and beyond their (budget), so they can’t really even afford a temp agency, per se,” Moeri said. “It depends on how big their budget is, you know, how desperate they are. We’ve reached out to a lot of fast food (restaurants), and they would love for us to recruit for them, but there’s always a cost.”
Whether or not local restaurants can afford to hire recruiters such as HireQuest, Moeri wants them to know help is available.
“We have tried to reach out to multiple different restaurants,” Moeri said. “We know that they’re in need, but it’s a fact of the budget that they can afford to have us help them.”