Friday, April 20, 2012

South Florida Restaurants Stay Hungry for Workers

 South Florida saw unemployment drop last month and payrolls grow. But the gains don’t compare to the streak in the restaurant industry.

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At Juvia, South Beach’s celebrated new rooftop restaurant, the butter-poached crab appetizer sells for almost $40. Chocolate eel sauce graces the menu, as does apple soup. But for all the exotic dishes and rave reviews, executive chef Sunny Oh still pines for at least one crucial ingredient each day: a full payroll.

“It’s been difficult to find quality people,’’ said Oh, a veteran of South Beach’s dining scene after a decade at the Shore Club’s Nobu Miami. “The good restaurants in Miami are always looking for people. Always — even during the recession.”
South Florida restaurants stay hungry for workers

South Florida saw unemployment drop last month and payrolls grow. But the gains don’t compare to the streak in the restaurant industry.

Friday brought a fairly positive jobs report for South Florida, with unemployment rates dropping and payrolls expanding in many sectors in March. But even with numbers improving, almost no major industry can boast of the kind of hiring streak under way in Miami-Dade restaurants: 28 straight months of job growth.

The industry last saw job losses in November 2009, during the depths of the global financial crisis. Since then, about 10,000 restaurants jobs have been added, putting the dining industry on a faster recovery pace than the labor market as a whole. The latest numbers have restaurant jobs growing at 6 percent, while overall Miami-Dade payrolls were up just over 2 percent in the latest local jobs report released Friday.

Restaurants’ standout performance isn’t the kind of good news economists like to tout in a healthy recovery. Despite improving unemployment levels and hiring rates, analysts see growth in low-paying service jobs masking trouble in better-paying sectors, including construction, manufacturing and white-collar professions like banking, accounting and law.

“I’m definitely concerned,’’ said Chris Lafakis, a Moody’s economist, who gave a “tepid thumbs up” to South Florida’s latest employment report. “The headline number looks good, but it’s discouraging not to see any growth in goods-producing industries.”

Broward actually saw its manufacturing industry begin to create jobs in 2012, with almost 3,000 new manufacturing positions added in March over the prior year. The four-month stretch of employment gains is the best for Broward manufacturing since the early 1990s.

But construction — a much bigger part of South Florida’s economy — continues its slide in both counties. Broward saw a loss of 2,800 jobs and Miami-Dade 2,000. The March numbers mean South Florida’s construction industry has been shedding jobs for four years and seven months. Employment is at about half what it was during the housing boom, amounting to a loss of about 62,000 construction jobs.

Gains in hospitality, healthcare and retail continued to drive the hiring recovery in March. Compared to a year ago, employers in Broward added 5,500 positions. In Miami-Dade, there were 23,400 new jobs.

Unemployment rates also showed progress. In Broward, the raw unemployment rate dropped from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent, the lowest since December 2008. Miami-Dade’s seasonally adjusted rate showed unemployment at 10 percent in March, down from 10.3 percent in February. That’s the lowest since the summer of 2009. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics will provide a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Broward and Florida’s other medium-sized counties later this month.

Florida saw the sharpest drop in its unemployment rate since the early 1990s, from 9.4 percent in February to 9 percent in March. The state added almost 11,000 jobs in March, about half of February’s gain.

Despite improving numbers, South Florida remains a rough place for job seekers. About 190,000 people are listed as unemployed in both counties. On Friday a pharmaceutical facility in Miami, PL Developments, disclosed mass layoffs, with 82 workers losing their jobs in June, according to state documents.

Improving unemployment rates are seen as feeding consumer confidence, which has been a boon to the dining and retail industries in recent years. A rebound in consumer spending helped bolster restaurant receipts shortly after the financial crisis ebbed in 2010. In July 2010, a tax Miami-Dade charges most mainland restaurants returned to record levels, after dropping 4 percent in 2008.

“Tourism has helped,’’ Robert Cruz, Miami-Dade’s economist, said of growing restaurant jobs. “But consumers are spending again. That’s why they’re more willing to go out to dinner.”

Broward’s restaurant industry isn’t large enough to get its own category in monthly job reports, but its hospitality sector accounted for 22 percent of the new jobs in March, behind retail and healthcare. In Miami-Dade, the restaurant industry’s two-plus years of hiring is second only to healthcare’s stunning record of flat or growing payrolls since June 2000.

Pastry chef Mayde Montesano found herself jobless in November when her employer at the time, Miami Beach’s Kane Steakhouse, abruptly closed. On Friday, Monstesano was back at work at Juvia, where she spent part of the morning preparing a stylized Snickers bar that includes coconut-lime ice cream

“I love it so far,’’ the 49-year-old said during a break. She talked to six restaurants before settling on Juvia for her next job. Though pastry-chef slots were hard to find, Montesano said openings were plentiful in kitchens throughout South Beach “There were a lot for line cooks,’’ she said.

Juan Carlos Barrera, owner of downtown’s La Moon, said business has been brisk in recent years at the Colombian hot dog restaurant. Job applications? Not so much.

“This last year has been really hard to find workers,’’ he said. “Kitchen, management, deliveries, waitresses, hostessing — everything.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

Update: Minnesota Waitress Gets to Keep $12,000 Tip

Updated: A Minnesota waitress has $12,000 to help pay her bills after claiming in a lawsuit that she was entitled to the money she turned over to police after a customer gave it to her.

Stacy Knutson of Moorhead, Minn., said in the Clay County suit that more than 90 days had passed without anyone claiming the money and it should be returned to her, report the Associated Press and ABC News. Police said the money smelled like marijuana and it was being held in a drug investigation.

On Thursday, Knutson’s lawyer, Craig Richie, said authorities decided to return the money, report Reuters and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Knutson received her check Thursday night.

According to the suit, a customer left the money for Knutson when she was working at the Fry’n Pan restaurant. The money was in a takeout box for another restaurant. Knutson’s suit said she tried to return the box to the customer, not knowing what it contained, and the customer said, “No, I am good, you keep it.” When Knutson opened the box, she saw it contained wads of bills.

Richie says his client gave the money to police because she didn’t want to be accused of doing anything wrong. When no one claimed it, Knutson decided the money really was a gift, Richie says. She suspects the donor was someone from her church who knew she was having financial troubles.

"The only thing that smells bad about this is that it's unfair," Richie told ABC before the settlement was announced.

Knutson plans to use the money to pay medical bills. She currently works full time at the Fry'n Pan and part time at two other jobs.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Minnesota Waitress Sues After Police Seize $12,000 'Tip'

Stacy Knutson, a struggling Minnesota waitress and mother of five, says she was searching for a "miracle" to help her family with financial problems.

But that "miracle" quickly came and went after police seized a $12,000 tip that was left at her table. Knutson filed a lawsuit in Clay County District Court stating that the money is rightfully hers. Police argue it is drug money.

Knutson was working at the Fryn' Pan in Moorhead, Minn., when, according to her attorney, Craig Richie, a woman left a to-go box from another restaurant on the table. Knutson followed the woman to her car to return the box to her.

"No I am good, you keep it," the woman said, according to the lawsuit.

Knutson did not know the woman and has not seen her since, Richie said. Knutson thought it was "strange" that the woman told her to keep it but she took it inside. The box felt too heavy to be leftovers, Ritchie said, so she opened it -- only to find bundles of cash wrapped in rubber bands.

"Even though I desperately needed the money as my husband and I have five children, I feel I did the right thing by calling the Moorhead Police," Knutson said in the lawsuit.

Police seized the money and originally told Knutson that if no one claimed it after 60 days, it was hers. She was later told 90 days, Richie said. When 90 days passed, Knutson was still without the $12,000.
Police told Knutson the money was being held as "drug money" and she would receive a $1,000 reward instead, the lawsuit states. Lt. Tory Jacobson of the Moorhead police said he could not disclose much information about the case because it is an ongoing investigation.

"With turning this money over to us, we initiated an investigation to determine whose money this is," Jacobson told ABC News. "The result has been a narcotics investigation."

Police argue that the money had a strong odor of marijuana and therefore falls under a law that allows for forfeiture of the money because it was in the proximity of a controlled substance, the lawsuit states. But there were no drugs in the box and Richie said he believes this law is not being used correctly.

"Because it was in contact with drugs somewhere along the line, it's somehow drug money," Richie said. "This isn't drug money."

A police dog also performed a sniff test on the money and, according to the dog's handler, discovered an odor.

Two of Knutson's co-workers, along with her son Brandon, were at the Fryn' Pan the night she discovered the money. Her co-workers say they did not smell marijuana.

"I know the smell of marijuana," Nickolas Fronning, a line cook at the Fryn' Pan, said in an affidavit. "I can also assure you that there was no smell of marijuana on the bills or coming from the box."

There was nothing suspicious in the restaurant when the money was found, co-workers said. They don't why it was given to Knutson.

"She was just in the right place at the right time," Tracy Johnson, the assistant manager at the Fryn' Pan, told ABC News.

Knutson's family has had a long financial struggle. She has been a waitress at the Fryn' Pan for 18 years.
"We do everything we can to make ends meet, but often times everything is not covered," she said in the lawsuit.

Knutson's financial woes are well-known in her church, Richie said. She believes that perhaps someone from the church gave her the money through this woman but did not want to be identified.
"Somebody knew she really needed the money and she needed to be helped," Richie said.
Jacobson says it is up to the judge to decide who the money rightfully belongs to.

"The police department doesn't have a decision on either side," Jacobson said. "She did the right thing, we credit her with that. It's certainly not the police department against her. We're actually with her."
But Richie said he firmly believes this is not drug money and it rightfully belongs to Knutson.
"The only thing that smells bad about this is that it's unfair," Richie said. "So that's why we're doing something about it."