Help Wanted: Local Businesses Struggle to Find Staff

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Many stores up and down Main Street have posted "Help Wanted" signs in their windows. Christine Sampson photos

As if getting customers in their doors and facing down competition weren’t big enough challenges, many business owners in Sag Harbor are facing another difficulty these days — one that can be inferred simply by walking past store after store after store with “help wanted” signs in the window.

Lots of local places are hiring, but it’s getting harder and harder to find and retain employees.

So say many local business owners, from retail stores and restaurants to professional services to technical industries. The functions of their businesses may differ, but they are united by many of the challenges that the labor market has presented these days.

“There’s a broad issue that every industry is struggling with on the East End,” said Gregory Ferraris, the owner of GNFerraris Accounting and chairman of the Sag Harbor Planning Board. “Last year was the first year that we saw it affect the economics of actually operating a business on the East End. Lack of employees hinders growth. We had restaurants last year that had to shorten shifts and not open for lunch as a result of not having employees.”

Lisa Field, president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, said in an interview that “there seem to be more of those ‘help wanted’ signs than I remember seeing in the past.”

“As a Chamber of Commerce, we have discussed this as a problem,” she said. “Some things are out of our control. Even if you have a good-paying job, with the cost of things going up, there are employers who have had people leave because they think they will have it better somewhere else. That definitely is a concern.”

Big-Picture Issues

Across the board, business owners and local government officials say they have witnessed people struggling to find affordable places to live.

In interviews with The Sag Harbor Express, they painted this kind of picture: Workers leave the Sag Harbor, East Hampton and Southampton areas all the time in favor of cheaper rents west of the Shinnecock Canal, but then are left to wrangle with the trade parade each morning and evening. That is, if they even decide to keep their South Fork jobs. Or, they crowd into housing in illegal numbers to split the ever-rising rent among more tenants.

And when employees have been able to stay local, they are demanding higher wages — even higher than the state’s $10 minimum wage — thereby putting pressure on the businesses themselves.

“The cost of labor is going up, because the cost of living is going up, because the cost of housing is going up,” said Joe Tremblay, co-owner of Bay Burger. “When we first opened up we were offering $10 an hour, $8 for the runners, and that’s gone up a lot.”

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Ms. Field said some of the chamber’s members are finding it hard to even hire teenagers, because so many are involved in sports, internships or traveling that they can’t commit to a job.

She also said it’s a challenge to balance year-round with seasonal needs. “You need so much more help in the summer, but if you have good employees, you want to keep everyone around,” she said.

Rita Mondragon, the hiring manager at Provisions Market and Café, said the store sometimes finds itself competing with other local businesses for employees from among the same pool of talent.

“It’s limited where we live,” she said. “I think it’s hard because we live in a seasonal area. The challenge is big for young people. It’s expensive to live here.”

Indeed, Hampton Bays-based labor and immigration attorney Melinda A. Rubin says the competition for employees is so fierce, particularly in service-oriented industries, that businesses sometimes steal employees from each other, tempting them with higher wages or other perks.

“It’s become kind of like this game,” Ms. Rubin said. “People steal workers from other people, hike up their salary and pay more money than they can afford to so it impacts their bottom line. Then, when it slows down, they have these high-paid workers on their books that they can’t justify, so they cut them loose.”

Hiring seasonal foreign workers through visa programs cuts down on that, she said.

Influx of Foreign Labor

It’s not a new phenomenon to meet people from Ireland, Jamaica, Eastern Europe or other places on the East End. They often arrive on a federal short-term work visa, ranging from three months to nine months or longer for some programs, ready to step into positions that might otherwise go unfilled and lead to serious hardships for businesses. Ms. Rubin said the East End has a higher concentration of workers in the U.S. on these short-term work visas than the rest of Long Island has.

“The needs are ongoing during the summer season for the last 20 years,” she said. “There has always been a need, it’s not really a trend. The issue is that there is a problem with visas. There’s never enough of them, and it’s more difficult, it’s more expensive. People try to do things the right way and there have been more road blocks.”

Businesses on the South Fork relying on foreign employees range from the Montauk Yacht Club in Montauk to Summerhill Landscaping in Sag Harbor to J. Tortorella Swimming Pools in Hampton Bays — and about 100 others in between.

Ms. Rubin said the H-2B visa program and others like it “are the best type of foreign aid there is.”

“[The employees] go back to their own countries and open up businesses,” she said. “They’re paying taxes here. Instead of us handing their country money, they’re building houses and businesses, and it’s not like Americans are being displaced.”

Qualifications

It’s not just a simple numbers problem.

“It’s certain positions that are hard to fill,” said Eric Peele, director of operations at Page at 63 Main.

At Page, waiters and other front-of-house staff members are plentiful. It’s skilled line cooks, Mr. Peele said, who are hard to find.

“They just don’t exist. There’s not enough of them,” he said. “They’re driving here now from the middle of the island. The issue is that there’s no affordable housing for professional people. We don’t even have a sous chef right now.”

Mr. Ferraris said he has generally observed a “depleting employee pool which results in the lack of qualified individuals” for some professional businesses in the area.

The reason? The lack of housing, he said.

Dave Leeney, operations manager at Sag Harbor Industries, a manufacturing company on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike that was started by Charles Edison, a son of Thomas Edison, said the company often has a hard time filling skilled technical positions such as machinists and mechanics.

“We don’t have solderers. People are a little gun shy to even try,” Mr. Leeney said. “It’s fairly difficult to find employees. I find that with putting the ad in the paper, you never know who walks in the door. Sometimes people have a whole set of skills, but it’s pretty rare, so we’re open to training pretty much everyone.”

He said Sag Harbor Industries has the advantage of not being tied to the tourist economy.

“But that means we’re competing with the rest of the world,” Mr. Leeney said. “It makes for trying to hire people a little tough in that the immediate pay isn’t that good, but we are a year-round job with benefits, paid vacation, retirement, all that good stuff. We don’t pay what a guy can make cutting lawns, but in the long run we can probably pay more.”

The Employees’ Stories

Sag Harbor resident Ashley Anne Boer, 33, is on the cusp of working five jobs.

She works as a produce manager at a food store, waitresses on weekends, works at Quail Hill Farm a few very early mornings each week and has a freelance floral design business. She is considering taking up Tupperware, too. It’s partly to make ends meet, partly to pay medical bills from a recent surgery and partly because she has a variety of passions.

“This winter I was focused on my health and I didn’t have as much income as I normally would have, so I’m making up for that,” she said in an interview this week. “I have also chosen to live somewhere expensive. I love living alone. It’s something I value, so I am OK with working harder to afford myself this luxury.”

But something’s missing.

“I haven’t gone to the beach yet,” Ms. Boer said, “and my best friend texted me the other day to say, ‘Do I still have a BFF?’ So it would be good for me to spend some more time with my friends.”

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Her experience stands in stark contrast to that of Chris Lopez, also 33, who arrived in Sag Harbor by way of Santa Fe and Houston three years ago. He originally intended to stay for a summer, but loved it so much he wound up staying. He works one job as a clothing store manager — 40 hours a week — and is studying to get into law school and planning to launch his own clothing line. He rents a house together with one other person.

“I literally Googled ‘best places to live in America’ and Sag Harbor popped up,” said Mr. Lopez, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics. “It’s really the greatest place to live in America. Nobody understands it. You have to live in a really sucky place to totally appreciate this place.”

In his view, there shouldn’t be any government-led efforts to create affordable housing because the market will eventually correct itself, he said.

“I like the fact that not everyone can live here,” Mr. Lopez said. “I don’t think a lot of people get it. The rest of the country has affordable housing — all of it. All the way through the rest of the 3,000 miles.”

Rich Browning, 45, is another Sag Harbor resident who has deliberately chosen to live and work here despite the high cost of living. The single father of 14-year-old twin girls moved here to live with his mother and brother when he realized he would be raising his children alone. He has jumped into nearly every job opportunity he could find — from being a bank teller to a retail shop worker, a custodian to a Census worker, a secretary to a landscaper, plus odd jobs in between — all to support his family.

“When I have space, I fill it with work. When one thing closes, I open up two or three more,” Mr. Browning said. “I’ve actually been very blessed with getting jobs that are flexible. It’s all to provide for my girls. I need to keep the income coming. As they get older, the demands are more expensive — school trips, camps, college in four years.”

But living in a more expensive place like Sag Harbor is worthwhile, he says, because the community is safer overall and the school district is better than what he experienced while living up island.

Mr. Browning knows he’ll eventually need to retire, but for now, it’s not really on his mind.

“My main focus is getting the girls through college, getting them in a good position, and then I’ll figure it out,” he said.

Future Prospects

Figuring out that big problem — housing — needs to be tackled with multiple strategies at once, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said in an interview.

“The demographics are scary. People age 25 to 35 are generally gone as a cohort,” he said. “We spent millions of dollars educating these people, but they can’t stay because the wages don’t match the housing, so they go to North Carolina or other areas where they have a shot.”

The trend leaves local communities without volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians. It leaves jobs without candidates to fill them.

“We need people to drive the ambulance or be a fireman. We need nurses and school teachers and social workers,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “We’re forcing an entire sector of our population out, and we’re becoming older, and as we age we need more people to take care of us. It’s really bad.”

Whereas some affordable housing proposals in Southampton Town have been met in the past with rigid opposition, he said the tide of NIMBYism — short for “not in my back yard” — seems to be changing as the more established residents of the area take note of the issues.

“I think there’s a moral imperative to solve this problem,” he said.

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