Sting of New Immigration Law Felt in a Labor-Short County : Restaurants/Your Dinner Tab Could Rise With Shortage of Workers

Orange County restaurateurs don't seem to have much of an appetite for the immigration reform act, contending that it is costly and time consuming. And customers could find it distasteful, too, if meal tabs increase to help cover higher costs, as some industry sources predict.

It is a problem that is especially severe in Orange County, which was coping with a near-critical shortage of workers even before the Immigration and Naturalization Service act passed.

The county's affluence--underscored by a median income of $42,000 and median housing price of $168,656--has long put restaurants in a bind when it comes to filling unskilled jobs. Those who have no pressing need to work have little enthusiasm for low-pay, low-prestige jobs such as busboys and dishwashers. And the shortage has been exacerbated by a declining number of teen-agers and high turnover in the fast-food industry.

Many of the jobs have been filled by undocumented immigrants who could not find work elsewhere, but with those workers now legally unavailable, more and more restaurants have been forced to scramble to fill vacancies.

Of a dozen locally based restaurant chains contacted by The Times, virtually all acknowledged that they have seen some decrease in applications in the last several months.

Marie Callender's 130 restaurants, for example, have had "an extreme reduction" in non-citizen applicants, down from about 8-12 per month to "none to one," said Scott Jones, vice president of operations for the chain.

All of those contacted agreed that the shortage has not yet become critical. But most expect the supply of eligible workers to shrink even more as applications for legal status are denied.

To help bring workers back to the tables, many Orange County restaurateurs are experimenting with ways to induce employees to stay.

Orange-based Naugles, the Mexican fast-food subsidiary of Collins Foods, will probably raise wages in areas where the chain has had difficulty hiring workers, according to Lee Clancy, vice president for human resources at Collins.

Another solution being considered by some is to hire more part-timers--especially the handicapped and senior citizens who might otherwise have trouble finding work.

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