Can't get into your favorite restaurant? A worker shortage may be why

Linda Borg
The Providence Journal
Charlie Holder, operations manager of the Midtown Oyster Bar in Newport, wonders whether he will be able to open his three indoor spaces and two decks for the summer. He's so short-staffed, he says, “we’re turning customers away" — as many as 100 a day.

PROVIDENCE — One executive chef, one sous chef, four line cooks, four prep cooks, two dishwashers, four hosts, six servers and a slew of counter staff. 

These are just a handful of the 30 employees Kim Anderson needs to fully staff Plant City in Providence.

Anderson is so desperate to hire trained staff that she is offering a $250 gift certificate to anyone who recommends someone she can hire.

And she is placing a note on every place setting with a list of unfilled jobs and a line that says,” Do you know someone interested in joining our team?” 

The second pandemic: That’s what some restaurant owners are calling the dearth of restaurant workers this spring. 

Layoffs and losses:Rhode Island hotel industry’s ‘horrible’ year

And that means if you like dining out, you may not be able to get a table. 

Charlie Holder, operations manager of the Midtown Oyster Bar in Newport, wonders whether he will be able to open his three indoor spaces and two decks.

“We’re turning customers away,” he said, sometimes as many as 100 a day. 

And instead of being able to hire experienced servers and back-of-house staff, he’s looking at college students with little experience.

“Right now, we’re competing with other restaurants who are throwing big money at chefs, sous chefs and line cooks,” he said. “We carry 135 employees in season. I need about 35 more."

The shortage of restaurant workers goes beyond Rhode Island. 

“This is the number-one issue facing our industry right now,” said Sarah Bratko, senior vice president of advocacy at the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. “It’s a national issue.”

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Where are Rhode Island's workers? 

Pre-pandemic, the hospitality industry employed 86,000 people. During the last year, 36,000 lost their jobs. 

Bratko said, “Even if we are able to open at 100%, we don’t have the staff to do so.”

People are leaving the hospitality industry for a host of reasons. Some staff have left due to the unpredictability that COVID-19 wrought last year. Others are leaving because they are caring for children or helping their kids with remote learning.

But one of the top reasons restaurant owners cite for staffing shortages is that workers are effectively being paid to stay at home, thanks to an extra $300 a week in federal benefits for unemployed workers.

“Something needs to be done about how unemployment is working,” added Holder, the manager of the Midtown Oyster Bar. “There is no incentive for someone to get a job. The joke is, if you collect unemployment, you’re working for the state.” 

More:Unemployment benefits to continue in RI; $300 bonus starts next week

The hospitality association has been working with the Department of Labor and Training on legislation to make it easier to return to work and still collect some unemployment benefits. It’s also talking to the agency about reinstating the search-for-work requirement.

What could the staffing shortage mean for restaurants and the greater RI economy? 

Casey Riley, chief operating officer of the Newport Restaurant Group, says "there is no question that whether you are a hospitality worker or not, you’re being incentivized to stay home. “I’ve been in business a long time. These are unprecedented challenges."

”There is no question that whether you are a hospitality worker or not, you’re being incentivized to stay home,” said Casey Riley, chief operating officer of the Newport Restaurant Group, which owns restaurants across Rhode Island. “I’ve been in business a long time. These are unprecedented challenges. We’ve placed ads for months, with [few] applications.”

The Newport Restaurant Group is looking for 400 employees, especially cooks. 

“That’s abnormal,” Riley said. “Normally, we’d be looking at about half of that at this point.”

Riley’s restaurants are putting their money where their mouth is. If you’re a line cook who signs on before June 1, the Newport Group is offering an additional $150 a week until Labor Day. 

If restaurants can’t fully open this summer, Riley worries about the ripple effect on the Rhode Island economy: less revenue means less tax revenue, and more businesses will need help to survive.

“Everyone is in the same boat.”

More restaurant news:RI restaurant owner surprised to learn COVID aid comes with a tax bill

How would RI tweak unemployment? 

Matthew Weldon, acting director of the Department of Labor and Training, said he hears the industry’s concerns. He has submitted a bill that would allow workers to earn substantial pay — more than their unemployment benefits — without wiping out all of those benefits.   

Right now, if your benefit is $300, you can earn only $299 from your job.

“This may be one of the reasons people are concerned about working,” Weldon said.  

“One way to address that is allowing them to earn more money, get some unemployment benefits and get whatever federal bonus is available.” 

The state cannot sideline the $300 weekly federal bonus. 

Weldon also announced another piece of good news for the industry: the DLT will soon reinstate the requirement that unemployed workers document that they are looking for a job, a rule that was relaxed during the height of the pandemic. 

“There is no single solution to this problem,” Weldon said. “Allowing people to earn more and still get the payments they deserve is one incentive. There are also discussions about ways in which we could provide incentives to workers.”

Plant City in Providence has printed up notes seeking help from customers who might know of potential employees.

The Beach House in Bristol used to get 10 resumés a day. Now, the seaside restaurant is lucky to get one. General manager Eric Shapiro said the restaurant just built a 40-seat bar, and he doesn’t have the bartenders to staff it.

Some restaurants are cutting their hours. Others are paying lots of overtime. The bigger ones offer signing bonuses. 

“Some people say I can stay home and make $600, $700 a week,” he said. “But come summer, I’ll have some servers making over $1,000. But you have to work for it.”

Customers are back, he said. The problem is the workers aren’t.

“The public has been wonderful about supporting local businesses,” said Jeffrey Hirsh, president of the Lobster Pot in Bristol. “They can support us, it’s just we can’t support them.”

Hirsh needs bartenders, kitchen staff, maintenance workers, you name it. And he needs them now.

“The state should send a strong message, ‘We expect everyone to get back to work,’" he said. 

“Mom and dad could be a little tougher, too,” Hirsh said. “Kids come up with a million excuses why they can’t work.”

Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.