Menlo Park: Housing Crisis Leaves Retailers Short of Workers
By Kevin Kelly, Daily News Staff Writer
Jul. 28, 2016
Retailers in Menlo Park face a dearth of employees at a time when some are looking to soon boost staff for the holiday season.
Anna Chow, owner of Cheeky Monkey Toys, said the downtown store currently is short three employees and she'll need to hire three more by September.
"We've always had a very tenured staff and in the last six months, we've lost about half of our staff," said Chow, blaming rising rents in the area for the shortage. "There's only so much you can make in retail."
Chow said after getting almost no response through usual hiring methods, such as ads on Craigslist, she lowered the hiring age requirement from 18 to 16 and began offering bonuses to current employees who recruit new workers. She said if the store doesn't have six new hires in place by September, customers will notice a difference.
"We're not going to be able to provide customers with the level of service they're used to," Chow said. "Our fixed costs are escalating, and we can't raise prices, so it's a very tricky time."
Ibrahim Ulas, owner of Galata Bistro, said his Mediterranean restaurant near Cheeky Monkey often relies on employees to bring in new workers.
"I need a dishwasher right now, and one of my kitchen guys' brothers is going to start working tomorrow," Ulas said Tuesday.
Ulas said none of his employees live in Menlo Park, which he too blames on escalating rents driven by high-tech companies moving into the area. Some of his employees live as far away as San Bruno, he said.
Retailers interviewed for this story said their only local employees are young adults still living with parents or residents whose spouses have higher-paying jobs.
Two years ago, 79,000 low-income workers commuted more than 50 miles each way to jobs in Silicon Valley, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which predicted that number will rise if Facebook's proposed expansion is approved.
In a letter to the city on July 11, the ACLU noted that an affordable housing shortage forces "well over 90 percent" of Menlo Park's workforce to commute.
Though roughly 130 affordable housing units are under construction in the city, staff readily acknowledges that's not nearly enough for people living on half of the area's median income or less. At a recent study session, the City Council discussed the possibility of increasing a fee for commercial development and adding one for residential development, specifically to be used on affordable housing.
As incentive for the city to approve its expansion, Facebook plans to build 1,500 housing units in Belle Haven, 225 of them affordable.
Ulas said one of his servers who lives in San Mateo has said he might leave the area if his rent increases again.
"He has a wife and they have a new baby, so he can't live with other people, he has to have his," Ulas said. "Every year his lease is renewed, it's going up $200 to $250 (a month) every time. ... For now, he's OK because he has two good jobs, (but) he said, 'I don't want to work just for rent.' "
Job growth has far outpaced housing in San Mateo County the past decade, leading to more workers fighting over fewer places to live. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments, the county added roughly 32,000 jobs and about 7,000 housing units between 2007 and 2014. Between 2010 and 2014, according to the U.S. census, the county added more than 54,000 jobs and 2,148 housing units.
Ulas said he isn't having a problem hiring new workers, partly because he gives his staff a bonus of $20 to $30 after busy days. He said he also gives hard workers pay raises in a timely fashion.
"They never come and ask us, 'Are you going to give me a raise?' because they know they will get a raise when they deserve it," he said.
Ulas' approach is similar to that of Praveen Madan, co-owner of Kepler's Books, who said he treats his staff as equals.
"It's a kind of democratic organization," Madan said. "When you get your staff really engaged and really involved, you create a real sense of ownership of the business."
Madan said he is on pace to boost pay for his roughly 30 employees to $15 an hour before the year ends, but acknowledged that's not enough. He offers profit-sharing, which has essentially boosted pay to $14 an hour, and is shooting to boost the rate to $20 within three years. He said his efforts have given him "a very stable team" over the past three years.
Kepler's will host a public forum on the housing crisis at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 18. It will be moderated by Councilman Ray Mueller and Kepler's co-owner Christin Evans, who recently launched a Facebook page ( www.facebook.com/storiesfromthehousingcrisis ) for people facing eviction or who have already left the area to share their stories.
"It's our job to bring the community together," Madan said. Email Kevin Kelly at email@example.com or call him at 650-391-1049.