Business Owners Still Face Hiring Dilemma

It's a question business owners have been asking since the storm: Where have all the workers gone? Just drive down any busy street along the coast and count the "help wanted" signs.

The post-hurricane hiring dilemma is affecting many area businesses.

Sonic in Orange Grove satisfies plenty of appetites over the lunch rush.

"A Sonic burger with mustard. Hold the tomato on it. And a cherry coke," said the customer over the order intercom.

But there's one nagging appetite that's trouble.

"We're starving for help," said the store manager.

Hiring enough help has become a constant struggle since the storm. The manager says boosting starting pay wasn't enough.

"A lot of people are working overtime. I'm asking a lot of my veterans who've been here awhile, I'm asking them to help out more. And we've been able to make adjustments since the hurricane to make things work," said manager Dale Babin.

"We have more business than we could possibly do," said Jim Harrell, who owns Champion Cleaners on Cowan Road.

Harrell doesn't have enough help either. But he has a pretty good idea why so many merchants are hiring.

"And I have found that there's really no incentive to work. As long as you can draw your unemployment, and have other bills paid, why work?"

The owner understands why politicians might support extending unemployment benefits.

"It makes them look good. They all sound good. And they're running for reelection and say, 'Look what I did for you.' But it hurts small business people," said Harrell.

It's not just small business owners with Katrina related troubles. At this week's grand opening of Future Pipe Industries in Gulfport, the chairman of that international company voiced specific concerns about the hurricane's impact on business.

Fouad Makhzoumi told the grand opening gathering, "It is difficult to attract employees when there's insufficient housing. It is difficult to meet business objective necessity for expansion when labor costs have risen beyond anyone's expectations, due to the storm."

Those concerns may affect an expanding manufacturer, as well as the drive in restaurant down the road.