Restaurant owners say employee shortage holding them back

Restaurant owners say employee shortage holding them back

Owner Paula Dumas stands on the back patio at Uncle Ronnie’s Red Tavern in Burrillville, which she says they’ve been unable to open due to a shortage of employees. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

BURRILLVILLE – One year into the pandemic, Paula Dumas, owner of Uncle Ronnie’s Red Tavern in Burrillville with her husband, Ron, said they’ve faced everything.

Since last March, they’ve switched to takeout, limited their seating, and navigated the complicated policies around reopening.

But the latest challenge, she said, isn’t related to the number of customers or government restrictions. Instead, she said, it’s staff that she’s struggling to bring in the door.

“I need more help. Summertime’s coming, I need to add to my staff,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, she said, the restaurant typically employed between 25 and 30 staff members. Now, she said, she has about 19, including many part-time employees with other jobs.

Dumas said she’s advertised jobs online, in newspapers and through word of mouth, but she’s unable to find enough employees to return to pre-pandemic hours and business levels. The problem is so bad, she said, she can’t open the restaurant’s patio, even with demand from customers and last weekend’s warm weather.

“I’ve got new chairs, tables, heaters out there, but nobody to wait on them,” she said.

Dumas blames it on the $300 weekly unemployment that was extended to Sept. 6 in the latest federal stimulus package. For many former employees, she said, it’s not worth it to return to work when they know the benefit will last through the summer months.

At the same time, she said, business is picking up as people receive their stimulus payments and feel comfortable returning to indoor dining.

“I can’t keep up. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life. I’m 70 years old,” she said.

Many business owners around northern Rhode Island reported similar challenges this week. Peter Kakisis, owner of Pawtucket House of Pizza, said he’s been unable to find additional employees since last April.

“People don’t want to work. They’re afraid. They get more money not working,” he said. “...We don’t get anybody.”

Kristine Teto, owner of Tumblesalts Cafe, said the North Providence restaurant is having trouble hiring seasonal employees as they prepare for their summer rush. The restaurant, she said, has opened its back patio and is already getting calls about summer events.

“It’s like we waited all this time for this opportunity, and here it is where we can start to get a little bit of our business built back up, and we don’t have the staff to do it that we did originally,” she said.

Teto attributed the difficulty to a variety of factors, including unemployment benefits and employees not feeling comfortable returning to a job where they interact with the public. While some dedicated employees have remained with them throughout the pandemic, she said, others decided not to return after being laid off. The pool of seasonal candidates, she said, is not as wide as it usually is.

“There’s no people to add. They’re just not there,” she said.

Phil Giguere, chef and owner of Adeline’s in Cumberland, said he’s been hiring since the restaurant began to reopen to in-person dining last year but can’t get enough staff to return to pre-pandemic hours. Before the pandemic, he said, the business was open from 11:30 in the morning until 1 a.m. Now, they’re open from 3 to 10 p.m. most days.

“So that takes a little over a third of a day away from me,” he said. “I haven’t been open for lunch at all any day but Sunday.”

With more employees, he said, he thinks he’d be able to bring in about 85 percent of the revenue he had prior to COVID-19. He used to rely on Facebook posts to bring in new employees but now can’t even find part-time dishwashers, he said.

“It’s always worked for me for the six years that I’ve been here. And now, I’m even paying for Indeed and I’m not even getting people that I wouldn’t hire.”

In Woonsocket, Fazzini’s and Champs Diner owner Bethany Marsland said the restaurants are facing the double challenges of an employee shortage and continued restrictions on dining. While the state recently expanded indoor dining capacity to 66 percent, Marsland said the six-foot requirement between tables means she’s unable to reach that capacity at Fazzini’s.

“Nobody’s applying. They’re all collecting unemployment, there’s no way to fight that. There’s nothing anybody can do,” she said. “I spend $100 a week on Indeed, and nobody applies or if they do apply, they don’t show up for the interview.”

Marsland said she’s currently scheduling reservations based on how much staff she has on any given day.

Sarah Bratko, senior vice president of advocacy and general counsel for the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, said they’ve been hearing for several months of employee shortages at restaurants and hotels. She said there are several reasons behind the problem, including unemployment benefits and restrictions on public transportation and child care as a result of COVID-19.

“It’s becoming more apparent because restaurants are starting to build up capacity again,” she said. “Back in January, when we were still operating under the pause rule, there wasn’t as much need for staff.”

During the pandemic, she said, the Department of Labor and Training loosened a requirement that people look for work in order to collect employment. The department, she said, is currently looking into when to reinstate those requirements, which should help the issue.

“I think as we open up more and the vaccine becomes more prevalent and things normalize a little bit, we expect it to improve,” she said.

At the same time, she said, many restaurants are still closed or not yet operating at full capacity.

Not every restaurant has faced the same challenges. Thierry Delos, co-owner of Kountry Kitchen in Smithfield, said the business has been lucky to retain most of its employees, even as he hears of shortages from friends in the industry.

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“I talk to a lot of restaurants in Providence, and they can’t find people. Especially in their kitchens, they have a lot of problems in their kitchens,” he said.

Delos described Kountry Kitchen’s atmosphere as a “family” and said he thinks it’s helped them keep employees in place. Many of their younger employees, he said, are the children of friends, and the restaurant continued to pay staff even when it couldn’t afford to during the pandemic.

“We really take care of our employees, so they tend to stay with us and not leave,” he said.

For other restaurants, however, the future remains unknown. Marsland said she doesn’t know if Fazzini’s will be able to open its outdoor patio this year or what the summer will bring. It all depends, she said, on state restrictions and how many candidates apply for jobs.

“It’s frustrating. This is a little over a year now. I’m lucky, but a lot of businesses have had to close,” she said.