The online giant tightens the job market in Licking County.

“Help-wanted” signs are all over East Broad Street in Pataskala. From hardware to car parts to fast food, small businesses in the Licking County town's main business district are desperately seeking employees. “I don't go anyplace that doesn't have a hiring sign up,” says Steve Butcher, the owner of the Nutcracker Family Restaurant in Pataskala.

As the economy has improved—and the warehouse and distribution sector has grown in this southwest corner of the county—retailers and other lower-paying employers have struggled to find workers. The problem has amplified over the past few months with the arrival of a massive new employer.

In September 2016, Amazon opened an 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Etna Township just south of Pataskala. Since then, the online giant has hired 3,000-plus full-time warehouse pickers and packers, computer specialists, robotics troubleshooters and more to work at this distribution center the size of nearly 15 football fields. Employees can earn $14.50 to $17 an hour, along with perks such as tuition assistance and a stock-award program.

These new jobs have been a financial boon to the area. John Carlisle, president of the Etna Township trustees, was stunned when his community received its $172,000 first-quarter tax check from Amazon this year. “I actually had to call and make sure it wasn't a typo,” Carlisle says.

But the perspective is a bit different for those competing with Amazon for workers in this largely rural area. Fellow distribution companies in Etna Township's business park just north of I-70 say finding employees was a challenge prior to Amazon's arrival. And Amazon's growing presence in Central Ohio “does add a new dynamic to the distribution and logistics industry in Central Ohio given the sheer size of their facilities and the required headcount to operate them,” wrote Tom Fogerty, vice president of human resources for DHL Supply Chain, via email. Both DHL and Ascena Retail Group, another Etna distributor, report that they haven't raised wages and benefits to compete against Amazon yet, though doing so is a possibility. “We continually evaluate the local labor market conditions and ensure our compensation programs attract, retain and motivate our talent,” wrote Angela Golden, vice president of human resources at Ascena's Licking County facility, in an email.

But that's not an option for some small operators. “We can't compete as a mom-and-pop business with the kind of wages that some of the industry here is providing,” says Butcher, who says he's lost four or five employees to Amazon and other nearby distribution centers. “We've tried to stay in the market that we're in, and that means my wife and I are working more hours and doing more with more part-time employees.”

Tony Ghiloni, the owner of Hot Head Burritos on East Broad Street, says he's lost at least two employees to Amazon. “We can't pay $14, $15 an hour,” he says. “We do that for management. But it's hard to pay that much and still be able to charge $7 to $8 for a burrito.”

Yet Ghiloni recognizes there's another side to the coin. “If people are working, making money, that gives them more money to spend at Hot Head,” he says.