Steve Carb is the head of SERG Restaurant Group on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, which employs more than 800 hospitality workers annually. During the summer peak season, he manages to staff his 10 restaurants with help from locals and college students. But once school starts in the fall, he’s left scrambling for workers to fill kitchen support jobs that used to be filled with immigrant labor. That’s why Carb is an advocate for a flexible immigration system that allows employers to hire foreign-born workers as needed. “We’re the largest employer on Hilton Head Island, and we’re having a hard time finding people,” he says. “It’s all the support people who are the backbone of the restaurant business. There’s an incredible demand for a small pool of people.”
The restaurant worker shortage isn’t just an issue on Hilton Head Island, which needs some 8,400 workers to serve the 2.6 million tourists who visit the island every year. It’s a national problem plaguing an industry that’s historically relied on undocumented immigrants to run the country’s restaurant kitchens. Carb’s labor woes started in 2012 when South Carolina required employers to prove all new hires had the legal right to work in the United States, as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify system. “We had to comply with the law and had to turn away a lot of valuable hardworking, loyal and dedicated people,” says Carb. Before the law took effect, about 20 percent of his workforce was foreign-born. Now immigrants make up just 15 percent of his payroll.
We’re the largest employer on Hilton Head Island, and we’re having a hard time finding people.
Although the drop in eligible workers might seem small, the impact has been big on his restaurants. Those workers often filled critical behind-the-scenes jobs, such as prep people, line cooks, busboys or dishwashers. “It’s hard work, and we can’t have restaurants without them,” says Carb.
Carb believes a more flexible immigration system can meet the needs of employers and local residents alike. He says his company is committed to hiring local employees and offers competitive pay. “Our payroll has gone up, and we’re paying higher wages so we can attract the best people available,” says Carb. Yet immigrant labor can be used fairly to bridge the gap. “We need to get this system fixed,” says Carb. “The current laws work against the small businesses they were supposed to support. We need a way to fill these vacancies so it’s a win-win for everyone.”