Tish and Jordan LaScola make coffee and bag Oram’s doughnuts for morning customers at LaScola’s Italian Ice and Custard in Highland Park. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Chances are if you’ve tried to get an ice cream cone or banana split this summer, your favorite shop has been hit by labor problems that didn’t exist prior to the Covid pandemic.

Many of these seasonal businesses rely on a workforce drawn from the ranks of teens and young adults, offering steady paychecks (and sweet benefits). Despite that, and creative attempts by some owners to hire and retain workers, many businesses still struggle to have enough employees to keep their shops open.

The Lock & Dam Dog Shop, which serves hotdogs and burgers in addition to cones and sundaes, occupies a prime spot on Washington Boulevard near the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium. Only open between March and November, the business has drastically cut its hours. Previously open until late evening, a handwritten sign in the walk-up window tells customers that the kitchen closes at 5:30 p.m.

It’s a popular part of the Morningside neighborhood and the shop’s limited hours have attracted comments on social media. One person wrote, “Best teenage job.” Another added, “This place has inconsistent hours.”

Lock & Dam Dog Shop is in a former Tastee Freeze overlooking the Allegheny River in Morningside. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Marjorie Prusia owns Page Dairy Mart, the East Carson Street landmark known for long lines and a deep menu. 

“We’re pretty well staffed right now. However, trying to get new people on, it’s kind of been a challenge. I’d say probably this year and last,” Prusia says.

Page’s, like many Pittsburgh ice cream shops, is seasonal and family owned and operated. Teens and young adults make up the bulk of its workforce.

“College students, high school students. Once we get employees, we tend to keep them for a few years,” Prusia says. “So, probably when we opened, I’d say maybe 70 to 80 % of the staff is just a rehire from the previous season.’

The popularity of Page’s means that staffing is a key issue. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

But in Pittsburgh, that’s a dwindling demographic. 

“There are a lot fewer kids,” says University of Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem. He cites recent reports on declining Pittsburgh Public Schools enrollments. “The general decline of kids in the city is pretty significant, so if you’re trying to hire here in the city, that workforce that comes from older teenagers, it’s not 20 years ago. It’s a very different workforce.”

Briem also notes that teens today have more demands on their time with sports and activities.

Susie Puskar is the chief policy and research officer for Partner4Work, a nonprofit workforce development board jointly appointed by the mayor and county executive. She agrees with Briem’s scoop but says there’s more to the story.

“We see a lot of young people who may historically have worked for summer type roles, you know, ice cream shops or amusement parks,” says Puskar. “We see them being able to access jobs in retail and food service that are a longer time horizon. So they have the availability to work year-round in some of these roles.”

The Lock & Dam Dog Shop no longer keeps its kitchen open past 5:30 p.m. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Everyone interviewed for this story described the pandemic as a turning point. 

“It’s important not to underestimate the role that Covid played in the shifts that we have in our labor market,” Puskar explains.

Top all the changes off with the Great Resignation that took older workers out of the labor pool and increased leverage for better pay and working conditions by workers in the service sector.

“It is very much a worker-driven labor market,” says Puskar. “The pandemic caused them and the resulting shifts in the labor market, to really reprioritize their lives. And so we know that workers have the ability right now to be more discerning where they choose to work and to drive the conversation with employers in a different way than they have before.”

The great summer labor meltaway has affected Pittsburgh well beyond ice cream shops. For the past two years, the City of Pittsburgh has struggled to hire enough lifeguards for its pools. 

Like ice cream shops, city pools are seasonal. Covid disrupted hiring practices that relied on seasonal workers, mainly teens and young adults, returning each summer. 

“The cyclical nature of lifeguards really does help with future years, folks becoming a lifeguard,” explains Mayor Gainey’s press secretary, Maria Montaño. “So when Covid happened and we didn’t open the pools, we sort of lost the whole recruitment base of folks that we had.”

LaScola’s Italian Ice and Custard in Highland Park. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Many employers are offering higher pay, flexible schedules and other incentives to attract and retain workers. 

LaScola’s Italian Ice and Custard shop in Highland Park offers competitive wages and flexible schedules. Yet, the pandemic changed things for the family business owned by Tom and Tish LaScola. 

Hourly wages start at $13. With tips, says Tom LaScola, workers can make as much as $20 an hour.

“We didn’t have trouble before Covid with workers,” Tish LaScola says, while she and her son, Jordan, prepare to open the shop for its coffee customers. “I’m not sure what happened to the workers during Covid. We just have a really hard time — like we pay very well. My accountant keeps saying ‘I’ll work for you.’

Page Dairy Mart is an East Carson Street landmark. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

At Page’s, Prusia offers flexible schedules and higher pay for weekend shifts. Wages there start at $8.25. She’s even dangled a $3,000 scholarship offer to her workers. 

“It doesn’t seem like that’s even motivating them. I think we might have one person who’s going to be eligible for that scholarship,” she says.

Page’s is fully staffed for the summer. Yet, Prusia frets about how hard it’s been to hire and retain workers. 

“I’m pretty much out of ideas. Just trying to give them a flexible schedule, being accommodating, increasing their wages during the super prime times, and that scholarship.”

Cutting hours wasn’t an option for Page’s, where lines wrap around the building. 

“I don’t think our customers would have it. They’d probably riot,” Prusia jokes. Sort of.

David S. Rotenstein is a historian, folklorist, and award-winning freelance writer. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and he writes about urban history, race, and the history of organized crime in Pittsburgh.