POINT PLEASANT BEACH — For the first time in 18 years, the owners of Mueller's Bakery in Bay Head are voluntarily closing the doors one day per week during the summer, their busiest season.

The bakery simply can't find enough staff to operate seven days a week, according to Alli O'Neill, whose family owns Mueller's and Colonial Bakery in Lavallette.

"They have put out applications on their website, on many platforms, they're advertising, really, everywhere — and they're getting zero applications," she said.

O'Neill is among a handful of business owners and leaders who made comments during a press conference Tuesday at Red's Lobster Pot, on what the New Jersey Business & Industry Association refers to as an "unprecedented hiring crisis" in the Garden State.

A shortage of workers, which experts blame on a number of factors related to the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to worsen in the coming weeks as a good chunk of seasonal help heads to college.

"Being open 100% means absolutely nothing without a workforce of 100%," NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka said. "To our workforce, we need you. A job is sustainable and unemployment is not."

Siekerka and other industry observers have said that part of the reason for the labor shortfall is a weekly supplemental unemployment benefit of $300 that runs through early September. That bonus, they say, makes staying home more attractive than returning to work.

"We want to remind traditional seasonal workers that they must clock 12 consecutive weeks in one season in order to be eligible for offseason unemployment insurance benefits," Siekerka said. "You still have time to do that."

Joe Palmisano's restaurants in Toms River are opening later and closing earlier this summer to make up for a staff shortage. He recently released an advertisement for jobs on two different platforms and received zero responses.

"If you can work, please work — part-time, full-time, anytime," Palmisano said. "We need help, the struggle is real."

During the event, speakers and NJBIA made a number of recommendations aimed at getting more would-be workers on the job before summer ends.

Siekerka said the business community is thankful for funding and policies that have been initiated so far, including a law that expands the number of hours a teenager can work in one week. But, she said, more moves can be made, including an "affirmative statement" from the New Jersey government that informs individuals that if they're available to work, they should be working.

NJBIA said New Jersey also should establish a more responsive process for employers to report violations.

"It is critical to hold people accountable and we need to avoid unemployment insurance fraud because that drives up costs in the end," Siekerka said.

Siekerka said the state should consider offering lump-sum payments up front to individuals who return to work, as well as a retention payment for those who stay with a business for a certain period of time. Tax credits should be provided to businesses, she added, that are struggling to raise wages in order to be competitive.

"There are tens of thousands of open jobs today," Siekerka added.

The group also calls for a full reopening of the One-Stop Career Centers in New Jersey, which are currently operating virtually due to the COVID-19 threat, and a removal of restrictions on childcare centers that may be blocking parents from returning to work.

"Right now as the restrictions stand, when children come in, they have to stay in the same classroom with the same children and the same staff for the duration of the day," said Karyn Serrano Jarzyk, owner of Kiddie Academy in Runnemede. "Our restrictions on grouping increase our staff by 20% in an economy where we're having such a difficult time finding staff."

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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