Workforce shortages are crushing Ohio’s restaurant industry. Immigration reform can help: Tod Bowen

CLEVELAND — Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve watched the staggering decline of Ohio’s restaurant industry. It breaks my heart, both as an avid restaurant lover and a leader within the Ohio Restaurant Association. More than 3,000 restaurants have closed statewide, and thousands more have scaled back operations. That means fewer local dining options for our communities, slashed hours for existing workers, less profit for restaurants, and, ultimately, a slower economic recovery for everyone.

We know what’s causing this problem: the lack of labor. Eighty-eight percent of restaurant owners cited workforce shortages as one of their top three challenges, according to a 2021 Ohio Restaurant Association (ORA) survey. We need a solution because, when we lose restaurants, we not only lose businesses, we also lose the cornerstones of our communities, the foundation of our local pride.

If we want to save our local economies, we must open our doors to the world. That’s the beauty of welcoming policies; highly motivated workers arrive here ready to contribute to the country and reinvigorate economic recovery. We have 381,000 job openings in Ohio and immigrants are ready to work. That’s why, in late 2020, ORA proudly joined Ohio Business for Immigration Solutions, a coalition of business, trade, chamber, and economic development leaders across Ohio that advocate for sensible immigration reform.

Through Ohio Business for Immigration Solutions, we talk with policymakers about how immigration is a workforce issue, not just a border issue. Immigrants fill crucial job openings that would otherwise go unfilled, help businesses expand, and allow consumers to get the goods and services they need without delay. Immigrants could literally save Ohio’s restaurant industry.

Restaurants are more than comfortable places to have a good meal. They keep our economy strong and our Main Streets thriving. Our state’s population is already aging; the majority of our counties are seeing their populations decline. If we want the next generation to live, work and put down roots in Ohio, we’ve got to entice them.

I’ve seen firsthand how immigrants can help. One of our board members co-owns over 20 Mexican restaurants in Ohio and has managed to keep restaurants fully staffed through his network, even in the worst of times. Our members frequently tell me their immigrant employees are reliable, with low turnover rates. To attract and retain more workers, we need policy reforms like streamlining employment-based visa backlogs, allowing temporary workers stuck in these lines to remain in the United States, and shortening application wait times.

Many also enter the industry with entrepreneurial aspirations; immigrants are eager to learn the business from the ground up and find ways to advance. Many of our members are immigrant restaurant owners who started as busboys and bartenders.

Immigrants are roughly a fifth of all restaurant and food service industry workers, according to New American Economy. In 2015, nearly 118,000 immigrants with less than a bachelor’s degree owned a restaurant or food service company.

Tod Bowen is the managing director of external affairs and government relations for the Ohio Restaurant Association.

In my own life, I have seen the important contributions of immigrants in my community. A once-thriving area saw businesses shutter in the early ‘90s as many residents flocked to the suburbs. In recent decades, newcomers have revitalized the area; in 2019, 26% of the Columbus Metro Area’s population growth was due to immigrants. We’re experiencing a rebirth, with dining establishments opening that represent cuisines from across the globe: Somalia, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, and China.

Bottom line: To have a growing economy, you need a growing population. Ohio business leaders understand this and so do many longtime American residents. In conversations with my neighbors, I’ve heard them marvel at the transformations that surround them: “I didn’t move; the world came to me.” Let it be so for more neighborhoods across our great state.

Tod Bowen is the managing director of external affairs and government relations at the Ohio Restaurant Association.

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