Kentucky lagging behind most states in people returning to workforce

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Pre-pandemic, the labor force participation rate shows that Kentucky ranked 42nd in the country.

The numbers have worsened with Kentucky now ranking 48th behind West Virginia and Mississippi. Roughly 44 percent of Kentuckians who are able-bodied and eligible to work are not actively seeking employment.

Coming out of the pandemic, there are about 7,500 open jobs in the 10-county region. Our current labor force participation rate is only 56 percent.

A handful of those open jobs can be found at Anna’s Greek Restaurant, a locally owned restaurant in downtown Bowling Green.

Owner and operator of Anna’s, Vilson Qehjah, says that out of 19 years of hiring and firing, this is the worst worker drought he has ever experienced.

“In order for me to run this operation, I need between 45 and 65 employees, but I’m not even 1/10 of that now,” Qehjah said.

“In two days, I had close to 15 interviews lined up. We took our time to schedule that. Out of those 15 in two days, only one showed up.”

Quehjah says that the reasoning he’s noticed behind his severe staff decline is inversely proportional. According to him, formerly employed people who were receiving extra income checks began to slack off- showing up late, breaking rules and skipping whole shifts some days.

Letting these not-so-model employees go led to more work for the few employees who remain leading to them eventually leaving due to the severe workload.

The dozen or so employees he has right now are working six days a week working 13-hour days just to keep the doors open.

“We all feel tired. We all feel exhausted, and I hear them, but at the same time, we have customers who come in and they want to be seated with no reservation, and it makes it very tough on us because we’re only two people,” he said.

Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ron Bunch says the Chamber of Commerce has found that the unemployment rate is an unreliable statistic to look at, because only about one third of the people making up the unemployment rate are receiving unemployment checks.

Bunch says that while covid-related unemployment checks aren’t helping the labor force participation rate, it is not the main issue.

“We really need to dig in and figure out what are really the things that will move people back to work, because people are here, and we really need to get them back to work in Kentucky,” Bunch said.

Quehjah said, “My best guess is that in order to qualify to extend your unemployment, they just put it on there that they applied, but unemployment offers never called to check if we hired them, interviewed them or even if they showed up for an interview or what not.”

Bunch says that if the commonwealth moved up to even the national average for labor force participation rates, 103,000 Kentuckians would be back at work.

And for anyone looking to make $1,500 to $2,000, Anna’s is right here in Bowling Green looking to hire. For those interested, the restaurant is taking walk-in interviews Mondays through Thursdays from 2p.m. to 4p.m. Bartending positions are extremely needed at the restaurant.

“Something is terribly wrong with the country right now, and I’m not the one who’s going to fix it, but I’m really frustrated from the aspect of a small business,” Quehjah said.