There are outward signs of a reviving service economy — increased customer traffic, streams of tourists on weekends — but many local owners are still struggling with serious staffing shortages, and the end is not yet in sight.
Most also are dealing with supply chain bottlenecks, exacerbated nationwide by staffing issues all down the line, resulting in skyrocketing costs for basic supplies, said downtown Bennington business owner Heather Hassett.
Hassett, who with her husband, Ryan, owns three local businesses, doesn’t think the general public is aware of how much more improvement is needed before Bennington’s downtown, and others around the county, can return to their pre-COVID-19 pandemic strength.
She said she hopes customers will be patient while they overcome problems that still roil below the surface of the local economy.
Like steering an ocean liner
Hassett likened the problems to trying to turn around a massive ocean liner that is headed in the wrong direction.
The Hassetts are fortunate, she said, in that family members help staff Bringing You Vermont and the Bennington Pizza House on Main Street, and the Woodford General Store in that town. But an inability to hire more workers during the pandemic has led to near-burnout conditions for employees trying to cover all the staffing bases.
“We are all exhausted,” she said of her staff, and of other business owners she knows, after months of dealing with COVID-19 protocols, staffing and supply shortages and spiking prices.
In fact, she said, most businesses in Bennington that have reopened are operating on a reduced schedule because of staffing issues.
“Business owners I know, and what I’ve heard, we’re on truncated hours,” she said. “I should be open at 7 a.m. I should be open 7 to 5:30. I cannot staff that … I am closed on Sundays; I should be open on Sundays.”
Her current staff members also have delayed taking time off, she said, because “there is no one in the wings.”
Scrambling to fill shifts
Michael McDonough, interim director of the Better Bennington Corp., said those businesses that reopened after the worst of the pandemic — some remain closed — all seem to be scrambling to fill staffing shifts and remaining open fewer days and fewer hours per day.
“It is pretty serious, and it is not going away,” he said, adding that his downtown promotion organization has hope that the local economy will gain strength as more community events, like Garlic Town, USA, return over the summer and fall.
Hassett said she doesn’t see the hiring issues as having any single or simple cause.
“I think it’s multi-faceted,” she said.
Among the causes are fear of catching COVID-19 while serving the public, especially among older workers; an increase in unemployment insurance payments boosted by federal relief assistance; a lack of affordable child care, keeping potential employees at home; and the likely fact that some people want to try a different line of work or gain more education or training.
“It also certainly is more than just the food and beverage industry,” she said.
Unemployment data shows that more than a thousand workers in Vermont’s food and hotel industry still haven’t returned to work — though the current situation is nearly 10 times better than it was a year ago.
At the end of June, some 1,400 workers in the accommodation and food services sector claimed unemployment insurance benefits, according to the latest data from the Vermont Department of Labor. This is a vast improvement compared with sector figures from the end of April last year: 11,600 people claimed unemployment benefits.
But for the past year and a half, this industry has consistently registered the highest proportion of unemployment claims in the state.
For the work week ending on March 21, 2020 — the week that Gov. Phil Scott ordered restaurants and bars to suspend indoor services because of the pandemic — up to the week ending on June 26, food and hotel workers’ unemployment claims ranged between 31 percent and 15.7 percent.
Last month, the rate was around 20 percent. This data encompasses people working in restaurants and hotels, as well as bars, campsites, resorts with hotels and other lodging places.
The supply of jobs is high, but the reason that many positions remain unfilled is not entirely clear to state labor officials.
“There’s no hard data why,” said Mathew Barewicz, director of the labor department’s economy and labor market information division.
This could be related, he said, to people’s continuing concerns over the safety of worksites. Restaurant kitchens and back rooms, for instance, are often tight and not designed for social distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The intense demand for restaurant workers that we’re seeing is not unique to Vermont. It’s also playing out in other parts of the country. “That’s the story we’re hearing pretty consistently,” Barewicz said.
Jess Chick of Townshend, a server/bartender in the industry for about 12 years, is hearing about similar struggles all around the U.S. including Florida and Maine, states she recently visited.
"I think a lot of that has to do with COVID," she said. "I think people got time off from the industry and realized they don't want to be in it anymore."
Chick also cited a lack of housing as a contributing problem to maintaining an adequate workforce. She said in Vermont, a lot of people were renting homes that were then sold in "the big boom of the seller's market right now" and cannot find places to live.
"It's a bad time to buy, so I think that's forcing a lot of people out," she said.
The staffing shortage also comes when restaurants are really busy right now, said Chick, who described last summer and this summer as the busiest time for restaurants she’s witnessed in Vermont.
Jason Lively, owner of Duo Restaurant in Brattleboro, is about to have enough staff to open at full capacity. He expects to have the right number in two weeks, then it will take another four weeks to get everyone up to speed.
Hiring in the kitchen had been difficult prior to the pandemic, Lively said, “so having had this massive layoff and shortage on labor, it definitely amplifies the situation.”
An industrywide reckoning
The situation is leading to a long overdue reckoning in the industry, where wages will increase due to competition for workers, Lively believes. An ad he recently posted on Facebook says cooks will start at $18 an hour, which he called “unheard of.”
Lively said he’s excited because one of his goals when buying the business in February 2020 was to get wages to where they should be.
Sarah Lott is the manager of India Masala House in Brattleboro but fills in for a lot of positions lately, because the restaurant is short-staffed. It's causing employees and the owner to consider closing on additional days.
“We’ve really, really pushed ourselves,” Lott said.
At times, managers are the only staff on the floor. They’re hosting, serving and bussing.
“I would say customers for the most part have been very grateful and appreciative, and have not given us a hard time when things get slow for them in terms of service, but I know it’s really difficult,” Lott said.
Lott estimated about 50 percent of applicants through the job website Indeed would not reply after attempts to schedule an interview were made. She also said a big distributor stopped delivering for now, because they needed to find more drivers.
Madan Rathore, owner of India Masala House, said it is especially challenging to find help in the kitchen. He noted training takes time and effort.
The restaurant increased wages to attract workers. Rathore said it was done a while back, before the staffing shortages became a big issue.
"Turnover is normal for the service industry but these staff shortages are almost worse for us than what we had to go through during the pandemic," Lott said. "During the pandemic, there was an understanding in the community and elsewhere that toughs were tough. People were grateful that we were able to continue operating. Now, people want to go out and feel normal again. But for our business, it is still not normal and we are struggling now more than ever."
Up in the hills
Southern Vermont's mountain-town eateries are struggling, too, even with their captive audiences of local residents and tourists. The Grindstone Pub in Bondville, established in 2018, stayed open throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Like many other businesses, the pub lost a couple of their workers who no longer felt comfortable in a restaurant setting. Since then, they have struggled to find new employees. The pub has put advertisements on Indeed and Facebook, and even placed a help wanted sign on the road. Despite the efforts, they still have found it difficult to attract people interested in working at the restaurant.
“We’ve had a handful of applicants in the past year and a half, and most of them don’t show up or return calls. We’ve probably had three or four people show up for interviews,” said Jason Mayville, co-owner of the Grindstone Pub. “We’ve hired one or two, and one of those people is working multiple jobs.”
In response to the shortage, Mayville said they changed the menu, making it smaller and easier to execute for the kitchen staff.
“Rather than have our wait times be extremely long, we’ve had to dial back our creative ideas and our dishes that take more time to execute,” Mayville said. “We’ve basically taken those off the menu and kept what is quick and easy and efficient.”
In addition, he said they have taken out some of the seating and put in a pool table and a jukebox to enhance the atmosphere and provide waiting customers with entertainment.
Even though Mayville said that everyone who works at the Grindstone Pub is compensated well relative to the hours worked, he believes the health concerns are still playing a large role in finding new employees.
“I do think the pandemic has played a huge role in the last year and a half, as far as people not wanting to work in a restaurant, that’s for sure, but I just think there is also a bigger picture to the whole work shortage here in Southern Vermont.”
Echoing longstanding regional concerns, Mayville said he believes the lack of affordable housing and young people leaving the area are among the other reasons contributing to the shortage.
Vermont News and Media reporters Chris Mays, Tiffany Tan and James Therrien, and correspondent Brandon Canevari contributed to this story.