SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI – Mark LaHoud, owner of Java Madness coffee shop on Salt Pond Road, said he saw “no to no” improvement in the lack of help affecting restaurant businesses since the pandemic began.
Kevin Durfee, owner of George’s of Galilee at Point Judith, said the same and might think some might never return to the restaurant business.
“I’m still looking for people. We hunt. I even had to reduce some of my capacity to serve and close rooms and bar areas because I simply didn’t have the staff, ”he said.
COVID-19 unemployment benefits ended on September 4 and business owners – particularly badly hit restaurants – thought this would end the labor shortage that is piling up on top of reduced hours and openings. All drove these owners to a height of frustration.
This redemption has not reached many South County property owners. The Independent spoke to some whose frustration is still teeming. Prior to the pandemic, restaurants in South County and others across the county were part of a growing trend for alfresco dining.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States saw net growth of 2.5 percent in the third quarters of 2016 and 2017, adding 15,145 new restaurants.
A change in attitude
Owners like Durfee and LaHoud now believe a paradigm shift could take place. It could also have developed before the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association reported in 2017 that 37 percent of its members said their biggest problem was getting help.
The number of restaurants facing this problem has increased by more than 15 percent since 2015.
Joe Many, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, said a recent informal survey of some restaurant owners in the Tri-Town area had led to a common belief that attitudes are still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels .
The additional federal unemployment benefit – now ended – has been viewed by restaurant owners as a deterrent to people from these hourly jobs. You could make more money out of unemployment than you would work. However, some see that this is not the only reason, so many and others do.
Durfee, LaHoud and other owners say potential employees are all leaving the industry together because they want the usual 9-to-5 shifts instead of nights and weekends.
“I have to cut one day – Wednesday – and close at 2pm because I only have one person who can work,” says LaHoud, who has 14 employees and is usually open until 5pm
Durfee said he normally employs around 80 people this time of year, but currently the roster is at the top of 50 people.
He also said he is reluctant to hire someone who has long been unemployed.
“The longer people are gone, the harder it is for them to return. And if someone’s gone for more than eight months or a year, I’d rather do the dishes myself, ”he said, adding that many companies seeking help are questioning the hiring of someone who couldn’t find a job – than it many gave.
The stigma, according to Durfee, is that a long-time or chronically unemployed person may not meet the requirements of the job. They might have fallen behind compared to others who have worked in the past six to eight months if they keep up with the skills required, he said.
Restaurant jobs can vary in terms of skills and requirements. While many applicants accept little to no experience, other positions such as chefs, bakers, and other specialty cooks are required as they have certain skills.
Retail companies, some owners report, fared slightly better. A spokeswoman for Belmont Market said she had no problem finding suitable – and numerous – applicants for employment.
Normal not yet
Governor Dan McKee told The Independent in April that support for the state’s small businesses – particularly those in tourism-dependent South County – had anchored his strategy of opening the doors for Memorial Day weekend when the state reopens.
On May 28, South County – and the rest of the state – returned to “near normal” – a term used by several local and other state officials – after a year of state restrictions.
“South County is right in the middle of it. Moving the date to Memorial Day from early June will benefit, ”McKee said
Business owners said it wasn’t as rosy as predicted.
LaHoud noted that he knew about a few other restaurants that were also reducing their opening times due to staff shortages.
Even the latest Providence Business News poll found ongoing fighting. Rhode Island’s business has been reported to be climbing out of the pandemic’s crater, but many are finding the ongoing aftermath is dampening their recovery.
It is also said that labor shortages have forced some companies to consider raising wages and improving benefits in order to stay competitive in a labor market that is now in demand.
LaHoud said he experiences this pain of change acutely every week because it has impacted operating hours and worries about filling up hours when someone calls in sick or simply doesn’t come to work
Not only did the staggering economic returns have a cause, he added, but working at home during the pandemic may have opened people’s eyes to a more preferred form of employment.
“This is a paradigm shift. You see people (the restaurant industry) go. They see them leave because they think they don’t have to go through the anger they were in, ”he said.