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Hotels And Restaurants That Survived Pandemic Face New Challenge: Staffing Shortages

Jason Brissett, a kitchen worker who came to the U.S. last month from Jamaica through an H-2B visa, is bracing for 80-hour workweeks this summer to make up for staffing shortages.
Tovia Smith
Jason Brissett, a kitchen worker who came to the U.S. last month from Jamaica through an H-2B visa, is bracing for 80-hour workweeks this summer to make up for staffing shortages.

It's exactly what everyone's been waiting for.

"I'm very happy to get out," says one woman, sitting down to a view of the harbor, at the Pilot House restaurant in Sandwich, Mass., on Cape Cod.

"It's like we're free at last!" a friend laughs, joining her to celebrate a 70th birthday, albeit several months late.

They're as thrilled to be dining out again as restaurant owner Bob Jarvis is to see customers start pouring back in.

"Oh yeah! It was busy right off the bat," he says, when the restaurant reopened last month for what's promising to be a bustling summer.

But just when he thought he'd finally be able to start building his business back after a devastating year, he's facing a new challenge: finding enough help to keep the food coming out of the kitchen.

"There's nobody to do these jobs," Jarvis says, "and it's starting to get ultra-desperate."

Jarvis is one of many who rely every year on seasonal foreign workers coming to the U.S. on H-2B visas. They're perennially in high demand, and even with an extra 22,000 the Biden administration has added for a total of 55,000 this season, businesses say it's not nearly enough. Jarvis got about one-third of what he needs.

He's so short-staffed, Jarvis says he's having to stay closed two days a week, giving up some 20% of much-needed revenue. At the same time, his payroll costs will spike as all the employees he does have will be working overtime, earning time and a half.

"It's definitely not profitable," he says. "It's just a really bad situation right now."

Bob Jarvis, owner of the Pilot House restaurant in Sandwich, Mass., is pitching in to wash dishes, cook and do anything else with staffing so low.
Tovia Smith / NPR
Bob Jarvis, owner of the Pilot House restaurant in Sandwich, Mass., is pitching in to wash dishes, cook and do anything else with staffing so low.

That goes for the staff as well. Jason Brissett, one of the H-2B kitchen workers who arrived last month from Jamaica, was hired to run the kitchen, but he's jumping in to do everything — from chopping vegetables to washing dishes.

"We can pull down maybe like 80 hours [a] week. It's really difficult. You don't want to overwork. You still want to go home back to your family and not die on the line," he says with a laugh. Working the line in the heat of summer is hard in the best of times; Jarvis says he has landed in the emergency room on multiple occasions from exhaustion and dehydration.

"Horrendous" is how Erin Tiernan sums it up. She's been trying in vain for months to find help for her two stores in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, and for her husband's hotel, the Dockside Inn. Advertising as far away as Utah and West Virginia, they're subsidizing housing for employees and even working with colleges to create internships, since students seem to be most interested in resume-building jobs. Still, she says, the hotel — which is fully booked — remains woefully understaffed.

"My husband is the only employee currently," Tiernan says, of a hotel that usually hires a staff of more than 10, including front desk attendants and multiple housekeepers.

"We have a 10-year-old who is going to get a crash course in running a register and stripping rooms," she laughs.

Tiernan says they've done the paperwork for several J-1 student visas, as they do every season, but everything is at a standstill this year.

"[Job applicants] are just waiting for embassies and consulates to process their visas to see if they'll be allowed to come," she says.

Part of the issue is that a Trump administration halt on those visas expired about a month ago, so processing got off to a late start. And on top of that, the work at U.S. embassies and consulates is still "severely" slow, because of pandemic restrictions, according to a State Department official, and J-1 and H-2B visas are at the bottom of the priority list.

"There's a backlog, and we've got to get visas expedited and get people into the country where we need these workers," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., says. "I intend to continue to push this. I've talked to at least three Cabinet secretaries and the White House at this point, all of whom recognize the challenge and are working hard to address it."

In the meantime, the shortage of foreign guest workers is also intensifying competition for American workers, who've been slow to return to the workforce.

"I've never seen it like this," says Olive Chase, who owns a catering company in Centerville, Mass., called The Casual Gourmet. "You cannot get a cook for love or money." As she heads into high season for weddings, Chase says she's actually turning down events because she can't staff them.

"There so much frustration with that. I have lost a lot of sleep over that," she says. "Right at the moment when things could get really good, you have something else that's going to hold you back."

Olive Chase, owner of The Casual Gourmet, a catering company in Centerville, Mass., says she's been forced to turn away business because she is so short-staffed.
Tovia Smith / NPR
Olive Chase, owner of The Casual Gourmet, a catering company in Centerville, Mass., says she's been forced to turn away business because she is so short-staffed.

The staffing shortages are rippling throughout the supply chain. Amy Guyette, co-owner of the Tavern on the Hill restaurant with a popular outdoor deck overlooking the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts, is also about to hit her busiest season, and she not only can't find help, she also can't even count on getting her food orders delivered.

"When a national corporation sends you an email and says we're having to cut our routes because we don't have drivers, so we can only deliver to you [two days a week instead of] five, there's a problem," Guyette says. "It's everywhere. The distributors can't get their hands on [the food we order] because the packing companies are short, so they can't process it, and then there's nobody in the warehouse to move it."

Business owners say they understand why many Americans may not be racing back to work. Some are still anxious about contracting the virus. Some have decided to leave the industry for other more stable, nine-to-five jobs. And given the extra government benefits available, some are simply content to stay home.

"Why would you expose yourself to the risks of working in close quarters, serving people food and drinks, when you could just make more money on unemployment?" says one longtime restaurant employee, who asked that his name not be used, for fear of hurting his future employment prospects.

"Sometimes it's not really worth the money that you get, when you're leaving [work] at 3 in the morning, worn out, tired and sticky," he says. "You know, like, I make enough staying home."

That is frustrating to many business owners, such as Amy Ward, who has been unable to lure back longtime employees to her small boutique in Williamstown, Mass., in the Berkshires called The Cottage.

While "some people are saying, 'I'm going to see how long I can ride my unemployment,' " Ward says she's so short-staffed, she has to close her store sometimes in the middle of the day.

"I've had so many seven-day workweeks. And many tears," she says. "I hate to say it, but people should be encouraged to get back to work. I don't think there should be extra incentives to stay home right now."

It was especially galling, she says, when she got notice recently that her employer contribution payments for unemployment are going up significantly.

"It's a huge increase," Ward says. "It makes me frustrated that I am paying for all these people to be on unemployment, especially when I need people to work."

But others are quick to push back on the notion that overly generous benefits are the problem. If people are doing better on unemployment, the argument goes, it only means they were underpaid to start with.

"I think we should take what [businesses] say with grain of salt," says Daniel Costa, an immigration researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank. "Every time you hear 'I can't find any workers,' you should add to the end of that – 'at the wage I want to pay,' because you're talking about very low-wage jobs."

In resort areas such as Cape Cod, however, businesses say they're offering around $20 an hour for midlevel kitchen jobs, for example. U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., who represents Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, also disputes the notion that low wages are the issue. Staffing shortages are a perennial challenge, he says, but with as much as one-fifth of the hospitality industry already fallen victim to the pandemic, the stakes are especially high this year.

"We invested a lot of taxpayer money to keep businesses afloat," Keating says. "I would hate to see that investment jeopardized because we don't have the necessary workforce in place to meet demand. And the clock is ticking."

Indeed, for seasonal businesses who've managed to survive all the blows dealt by the pandemic over the past 14 months, this summer is make-or-break time. And owners are once again forced to get creative.

Guyette says she can't afford to turn away customers by having her Tavern on the Hill stay closed a few days a week. Nor can she risk turning off customers with shoddy service. So she's considering one more pandemic-prompted pivot.

"Maybe we completely shut down table service," she says. Instead, diners would just walk in, order off a menu board and seat themselves. "Maybe this is the year that we completely change who we are, and what we are, in order to adapt to the job market."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.