Feature story (Smal business)

Small businesses in Albany, CA are struggling to find employees: fewer and fewer people want to work for small companies.

Located at the intersection of Albany and Berkeley the Tokyo Fish Market is never empty. Customers buying salmon, sushi or Japanese rice desserts fill the large room, and workers carrying, cutting, and wrapping fish abound. Or so it seems.

The market needs more workers, said Li Nakamura, who has been running it since 1990.

“Every business has a hard time right now finding workers,” he said. “We do not know why.”

Up and down Albany’s commercial district of Solano and San Pablo, owners and managers talked of a tech boom that has brought more customers willing to spend more money. The problem is finding and keeping enough employees to serve them. Employers blame competition from other cities – workers can walk next door to Berkeley and get more money – and tech jobs like driving for Uber and Lyft.

Nakamura can’t remember a time like this. The minimum hourly wage in Albany is $11.93 with health benefits paid by the employer or $13.54 with no health benefits. That makes it one of the highest in the country, but “people still don’t want to work,” said Nakamura.

Tommy Ryan, a manager in Boss Burger, the popular public catering place on Solano Avenue, has been looking for a cashier for a month. No one had even shown up for an interview.

“I scheduled a bunch of interviews,” he said, adding that they never even bothered to call and cancel.

Ryan, who has been in the restaurant business for ten years said that five years ago it was easier to find workers. It hasn’t helped, he said, that this fall, Berkeley’s minimum wage went up to $15 an hour.

“Potential workers can walk down the street and get $15 an hour,” he said.

Mike Uong, who owns Royal Coffee Groundon Solano Avenue said he is likely to lose three workers soon because he can’t afford to pay more than Albany’s minimum wage.

“It is not only high competition in this neighborhood,” he said, it is also finding good workers. “I need someone who can work seven days a week, but I can’t pay enough for that,” he said.

That predicament pushed Koichi Endo to put his sushi bar Sugata up for sale. Now 74, he opened in 1984 and while his official reason is his retirement, his neighbors said that rising costs were also a likely factor.

Sangeeta Garcha, a grocery store owner at the intersection of San Pablo and Solano avenues – Albany’s leading commercial corridor – said workers who might have found small businesses an attractive employer, now have other options. Anyone with a car and driver’s license can work independently as an Uber and Lyft driver and earn good money.

“Everybody wants to be their own boss,” she said.  “I guess they just like to do their own thing instead of being confined by an eight-hour-job.”

Garcha recently hired two workers, but it wasn’t easy.

“I know people who work from 10 to 12 hours for Uber and Lyft, and they make $5000-6000 a month,” she said. “Even though we still pay over the minimum wage in the Bay Area, nobody still wants to do that.”

At least one small business has stayed open by becoming a one-person operation.

James Silva has made stained glass windows for houses for the last 15 years. Three years ago, Silva let his workers go and nowadays he does everything himself – from janitorial service to the accounting, fabrication, and sales.

“The Bay Area is unaffordable,” he said. “I have had employees, but instead of paying them living wage I work alone.”

Silva, who was raised in the Bay Area, said that the struggles of small businesses are just one part of the trend in which life is changing in bigger, more fundamental ways. “People who make a lot of money don’t understand what it takes for a town to be viable,” he said. Parking, bike lanes, and things like that are making it harder for customers to get to small businesses. “It is fundamentally changing the nature of what a town is.”




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