Express Sessions: East End Employers Discuss Challenges In Hiring New Staff

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The Express Sessions panel.

East End businesses and organizations, including school districts and the region’s largest employer, have had a difficult time recruiting employees for open positions for a number of years because of the lack of affordable housing and the high cost of living — and the pandemic only amplified the issue.

“It’s not only not a new issue, it’s been, I would say, intensified and a greater sense of urgency has surrounded our hiring,” East Hampton School Superintendent Adam Fine said at an Express Sessions conversation last week.

He continued: “We have always had a difficulty in recruiting staff members, specifically teaching staff in a number of areas where up-island schools would be able to solicit hundreds of resumes for — we would usually get half that. We’re not even at a quarter of that now.

“I think, compounded with the pandemic, and people wanting to be closer to home, and the affordable housing issue, which is something that’s very important to our board of education, we’re not getting enough candidates out on the East End to fill our positions.”

The panel discussion, “Hiring Challenges,” was hosted by the Express News Group virtually on the Zoom platform on October 14. In addition to Mr. Fine, panelists included Robert Chaloner, the chief administrative officer at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital; Mark Smith, whose company owns five East Hampton area restaurants, Rowdy Hall, Nick & Toni’s, Coche Comedor, La Fondita and TownLine BBQ; and John Tortorella, owner of J. Tortorella Swimming Pools of Southampton. It was moderated by Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.

Video of the event is available at 27east.com

The event was designed to bring together representatives of various industries who all share the common problem of recruiting and maintaining employees, Mr. Shaw said.

“I think they’re all showing signs of a crisis right now because of having difficulties finding workers,” he said. “So we wanted to get a glimpse of the situation from the perspective of those who are doing the hiring — or trying to, struggling to do the hiring, in some cases.”

Without exception, the panelists agreed that the No. 1 impediment to bringing in new employees is the dearth of affordable housing, making it nearly impossible to recruit workers from other areas, even western Long Island.

Mr. Fine noted that when the district posts an opening for a teaching position, far fewer applications are received than in the past, or are received in districts farther west, where housing may be more accessible. Candidates cannot afford to live in the district, and commuting becomes an issue in time — teachers may accept a position thinking they won’t mind the commute but end up leaving when a position become available closer to home.

Similarly, Mr. Chaloner said the hospital — which employs about 1,400 people and currently has the highest vacancy rate it’s ever seen, with about 120 open positions — faces those same challenges. Because of the cost of living, he said, nearly 80 percent of the hospital’s workforce live west of the canal. Given the traffic crisis, that commute often becomes untenable, he said.

“These are very often very specialized people,” he said, “and we tend to hire people right out of school who don’t have a lot of experience, we train them, and suddenly somebody up the island discovers them and hires them away from us, because of a commute, and it’s hard to compete with that.”

In addition to the strain the pandemic put on workers over the past 18 months, there’s been a fear of working in health care, he said, prompting some older workers to retire, accounting for even more job openings that new workers with the same fears might be reluctant to take.

The pandemic had perhaps a different effect on the restaurant industry, Mr. Smith said, highlighting a national trend in which food service and hospitality workers took advantage of the early lockdowns to take a break and think about career changes, often to jobs that offer different hours and more opportunity to spend time with their families.

“I think what the pandemic did, it gave people the opportunity — not by choice, but by circumstance — to sort of change or reflect back on their work life, their family life,” he said. “They spent a lot more time with their family. They spent a lot more time at home. … So I think a lot of people, and specific to the restaurant industry, sort of stepped back and said, ‘Well, hold it. Working holidays, working late nights, working weekends, was this really the way I want to spend my life, and particularly with my family life?’ And I think a lot of them said, ‘You know what? The answer is no.’”

So that gives Mr. Smith the opportunity to turn his business model “inside out” and make some changes to keep workers interested in staying. “Maybe the paradigm changes,” he said. “Maybe our restaurants are only open five days a week, and we give people two days off in a row, and we need less employees. Scheduling is easier, and maybe we pay those folks a little bit more.”

As for Mr. Tortorella’s business, he said the pandemic affected him as well. Historically, he said, he was always able to pull workers from the west, who tolerated the commute because they were paid better here. But the pandemic resulted in worker shortages in western Long Island, resulting in higher pay there. So now, those same workers who used to come to the East End can avoid the commute and make as much as they used to working out here.

Additionally, he said that the pandemic prevented him from bringing in workers through the federal H-2B program, which supplies temporary work visas for the summer season. But since borders were blocked, those workers weren’t available.

Mr. Tortorella said he would like to see the system changed in the future so that he could bring foreign workers over for longer periods of time — perhaps for a few years.

“Unless the government allows us to bring some more people from overseas, we’re not going to get out of this thing,” he said.

In addition to the panel, Nancy Passaretti, the owner of BuddhaBerry in Sag Harbor, joined the conversation to offer an impassioned accounting of the hardships she has faced keeping her business going over the past 18 months.

“It’s been really interesting listening to all of your input here, and I think I’m coming in at the bottom of the totem pole here, because I’m a frozen yogurt shop,” she said. “So it’s been exceptionally challenging for me. I, unlike Mark, can’t offer the benefits and the health insurance and all of the extra stuff. So it’s really, really been tough.”

She has survived the summers, she said, by utilizing college students, but now that they’ve gone back to school, she has few options.

She pays well, she said —$25 to $27 per hour — but just can’t find help, leaving her to take on the heavy load with no help in sight and little optimism that things are going to change anytime soon.

“I’ve been working myself to the bone, to the point that I pretty much can’t even do it anymore, and I don’t know what I’m going to do at this point,” she said.

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