By Alec Giufurta
David Piacente, the executive chef at Gosman’s in Montauk, normally commands a crew of more than 100. This summer, the timeless dock eatery will have to manage with just half that — it’s just one example of a new crisis for East End restaurants.
Visa programs for foreign workers, indispensable to the seasonal and demanding East End hospitality industry, were banned by President Donald Trump, leaving area restaurants short-staffed and scrambling to fill positions.
The temporary ban, enacted through executive order on June 22, restricts immigration by suspending new work visas, including the J-1 program for students on work-study programs and the H-2B program for summer hospitality industry workers.
Even if restrictions on indoor dining are relaxed this summer, Mr. Piacente said Gosman’s will still never be able to open in full capacity with the president’s visa restrictions.
On the East End, the J-1 program, in particular, proved vital to staffing many of the area’s seasonally-booming restaurants. But this summer, the one-two punch of the COVID-19 pandemic and visa ban has left eateries reeling.
“If the COVID wasn’t bad enough, this is just icing on the cake,” Mr. Piacente said. He was expecting between 30 and 40 workers to join his team on H-2B and J-1 visas this summer.
At Buddhaberry in Sag Harbor, Nancy Passaretti, the frozen yogurt bar’s owner, normally rents an apartment above the shop for students on the J-1 visa working in her store.
“We survive with the J-1 visas and it has been terrifying to think what would happen without them, and then it happened,” Ms. Passaretti said.
Days before the Trump Administration’s ban was announced, The Wall Street Journal had reported that the restrictions were in the works. White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley stated that the administration was aiming to “protect American workers and job seekers.”
And although the eight workers Ms. Passaretti was expecting to join her team this summer on visas were barred entry to the United States, she was able to find replacements: college students with canceled internships.
“The pandemic opened up this free fall with smart amazing kids whose internships and amazing summer plans got crushed,” Ms. Passaretti said, attributing her ability to staff her store to students now stuck home. “But it’s very temporary, very precarious.”
But elsewhere on the East End, the ban’s effect may prove to be counterintuitive. Area employers noted that American workers the president proclaims to be protecting aren’t taking jobs local managers need filled.
Nikki Cascone-Grossman, the owner of Southampton lunchtime staple the Village Cheese Shoppe, was expecting nine students on J-1 visas. Now, faced with a summertime deluge of customers, she’s struggling to keep up with demand, citing increased wait times for salads and sandwiches as one effect of her staffing shortages.
But to fill positions, Ms. Cascone-Grossman expressed a reluctance to hedge her bets on local staff.
“We don’t get local staff, and if we do, it’s problematic, because they want to go to the beach,” Ms. Cascone-Grossman quipped. She explained how workers on visas have traditionally been more dedicated and responsible.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Ms. Cascone-Grossman said of the visa ban.
For many restaurants now opening outdoor and partial indoor seating sections, a crux in finding staff has hindered their efforts.
Sen Japanese Restaurant in Sag Harbor transformed its parking lot into a grassy picnic area for dine-in, but management has struggled to fill dishwashing and busing roles.
“A lot of the Americans do not want to take those jobs,” said Jessica Miranda, Sen’s manager. “We are in desperate need.”
Down the street at Lulu Kitchen & Bar in Sag Harbor, the visa ban barred entry to 20 percent of its workforce, forcing the restaurant to close one day every week and cut late-night hours, Joshua Fishbein, the general manager said.
Mr. Fishbein has also had no luck finding replacement staff, explaining that area workers only look for part-time hours, and, in his experience, aren’t nearly as reliable. He planned on placing workers on visas in critical front of house roles, noting that Lulu has hosted its kitchen staff, mostly residents of Puerto Rico, in a hotel the restaurant owners purchased.
Sen, Ms. Miranda said, expected six to eight workers on visas to join its summer staff — they would house them above the restaurant in an apartment. She noted that Sen takes strong precautions to ensure its staff is not infected, including testing requirements, and debunked fears that the foreign workers would arrive infected with COVID-19.
Mr. Piacente likewise lamented about the difficulty in filling jobs with local labor. He cited the expensive housing market and inordinate cost of living as factors contributing to staffing difficulties: “There’s not enough local population to fill dishwasher jobs.”
Michael Gluckman, the owner of the new Bamboo restaurant in Southampton, said that without the 10 workers with visas he planned to receive, “I’m doing 10 jobs myself.”
In an email to The Press, the communications director for U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin wrote that Mr. Zeldin was not supportive of the visa ban. In an April 15 letter, Mr. Zeldin had urged Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf to raise the cap on H-2B visas, reasoning that the increase in unemployment benefits from stimulus packages created a “disincentive” for workers to seek employment.
“As we approach the summer season, it is critical for the rapid economic recovery of the U.S. that seasonal employers have access to a sufficient labor force,” Mr. Zeldin’s letter continued.
As the season churns on, restaurants on the East End will be forced to adapt to survive not only through the COVID-19 pandemic, but now also through staffing shortages.
“It’s a terrible recipe for the East End restaurant industry,” Mr. Piacente said.