Beer Man

With So Many People Out of Work, Why Are Breweries Hiring?

Ratio welcomed customers back in June.
Ratio welcomed customers back in June. Ratio Beerworks

Dozens of Colorado breweries have posted Help Wanted ads over the past few weeks as they reopened to varying degrees following the end of the state's lockdown on restaurants and bars.

The sudden demand for employees seems strange, though, given how many brewers, beertenders, marketing folks and other brewery staff were laid off or furloughed in late March because of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

A possible explanation may involve two different factors:

1. Many service-industry workers have been able to collect state unemployment along with federal funds ($600 per week) as part of the CARES Act, which was designed to help the economy stay afloat during nearly nationwide lockdowns; the payments are set to expire July 31. The combination of sources allowed recipients to afford to stay unemployed at a time when the public-facing workforce has been at a higher risk of exposure to the virus.

Mountain Sun's Kevin Daly. - MOUNTAIN SUN PUB
Mountain Sun's Kevin Daly.
Mountain Sun Pub
"Why would you go back to work when you can stay home and make enough money and stay healthy?" explains Kevin Daly, who founded the Mountain Sun brewpub chain in 1994 and still runs its five locations, including Denver's Vine Street Pub. For the sake of his employees, Daly took the safe route, closing his pubs for in-house dining a few days before the state mandate, and later closing altogether.

He was delighted when he realized that the state and federal government would pay unemployment, and he decided to continue covering his employees under their health insurance policies as well.

Although some of the Mountain Sun locations are now selling beer to go and others are getting ready for limited in-house dining, Daly still wants to be cautious, especially since he says he can't make money at 50 percent capacity.

2. As breweries shift their business models, they need employees with different skill sets than before. Comrade Brewing, for instance, hasn't been that affected by employees staying home on unemployment. Rather, the Denver brewery has needed to hire hosts and servers who could greet and seat guests and provide table service (both required by the current health and safety regulations), something Comrade had never done before, says owner David Lin.

"What has happened here is that the taproom is open 34 percent fewer hours than pre-pandemic, but labor hours worked increased 25 percent," he told us in an earlier statement. "To comply with the guidance from CDPHE, we need a lot of extra staff." Other new tasks include filling to-go orders, extra cleaning and sanitizing of tables, chairs and bathrooms, and running food to customers from our restaurant partner."

click to enlarge The staff at Comrade Brewing. - COMRADE BREWING
The staff at Comrade Brewing.
Comrade Brewing
Lin says Comrade offers 100 percent paid health insurance, a 401(k) with a company match, vision and dental coverage and decent wages, "so for us, it's highly unlikely the unemployment benefits would be greater if they paid for all the benefits out of pocket."

Ratio Beerworks co-founder Jason zumBrunnen has been affected by both of the factors above. He had to lay off the majority of his staff in late March and says some moved on to other things, while a few chose to stay home and take unemployment.

But when it came to rehiring in June, he needed more people for "front of the house" work. "It's definitely been a weird new phase to an already bizarre year," he says, "especially as we are doing table service and acting more like a restaurant — no bar seating, no self-ordering."

As the end of the CARES Act payments approaches, however, zumBrunnen thinks more and more people will want to come back to work — and not just for their paychecks. Some return for the "camaraderie...but also, more practically, they don't want to use up all their unemployment now, especially if there is another spike or shutdown," he says. "We're taking it one day at a time, one foot in front of the other. It's like restarting a business over again. We don't expect our draft sales at off-premises to come back anytime soon, but hopeful the taproom will lead the way back to getting back on our feet."
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes