A year ago, many local business owners feared that COVID-19 restrictions might put them out of business. This summer, the nationwide labor shortage has emerged as a new threat to their financial solvency that has forced many, especially those east of the Shinnecock Canal, to keep their shops and restaurants closed on days when customers would otherwise be lined up out the door.
As they were all winter, weekday crowds are larger than they have ever been this spring, but many business owners are unable to take full advantage of the demand for their services because they are unable to find enough workers to man their counters, kitchens and sales floors.
Restaurants have had to remain closed one, two or even three days a week. Lunch service has been canceled entirely at some of the most venerable lunch spots in village downtowns. Bagel stores, delis and specialty shops are suddenly closed — “Help Wanted” signs begging for assistance through darkened windows.
“We have to turn people away, we simply don’t have enough staff,” said David Loewenberg, who is a partner in three local restaurants, all of which have not been able to shift to their full usual summer schedules yet because of lack of staff, particularly in kitchen positions. “Something is going to have to change in a big way for us to even attempt it in July and August.”
At Rowdy Hall in East Hampton, the restaurant’s normally bustling weekday lunch tables have been left unset as the management has had to carefully select which shifts to staff. The restaurant, long a 7-day-a-week-year-round business, is only open for dinner five nights and lunch on weekends. Its sister restaurant, the famed Nick & Toni’s is in the same boat.
“We just don’t have enough staff to run 14 shifts at Rowdy,” co-owner Mark Smith said. “You have to sit down and analyze your business and the dinner shifts are busier. Rowdy is five nights, Nick & Toni’s is five nights, Coche Comedor is five nights. We are hoping to be able to go to seven nights, but that remains to be seen.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, Goldberg’s Famous Bagels at one end of Sag Harbor’s busy sidewalks and The Corner Bay at the other end were both closed at lunch.
Some owners have been pressed to take extraordinary measures to staff their stores. The Citarella chain of gourmet markets has been offering “signing bonuses” to those who respond to their want ads in local papers. This week, the enticement was sweetened, increasing from $1,500 to $2,500.
Those who are able to keep open say they are over-taxing their staff already at the very beginning of what is sure to be a long summer season.
“We’re down like 12 bodies right now from where we need to be,” said Jeff Lange, owner of the Red Horse Market in East Hampton, who has been stocking shelves and working behind the store’s counters to make up for staff shortages where he can. “It means the majority of my staff is doing 15-20 hours of overtime, so they are getting tired and we’re just getting rolling with the season. I’m not sure how long we can keep it up.”
The causes of the labor shortage seem to be many — hopes for solutions to it few.
The absence of housing tops most business owners’ lists of hurdles, followed by the difficulty of travel from other areas and the demand for workers in so many industries. Fewer seasonal immigrant workers are coming in from Europe, Jamaica and Central and South America because of a mix of pandemic hurdles and pointless red tape, they say. Expanded federal unemployment benefits that remain in place from the pandemic recovery, some owners suspect, is keeping some lower-waged restaurant workers like dishwashers and kitchen prep staff from seeking full-time employment again.
An affordable summer rental housing market that had already been decimated by the lure of lucrative — and mostly illegal — rentals through Airbnb and its copycats has been entirely overwhelmed by the surge of new residents since the pandemic began. College kids that once split a three-bedroom house between six friends, and were still able to make pockets of cash waiting tables for the summer, do not seem to be returning to the local market this summer, restaurant owners said.
“Housing is the key issue, I believe — it’s a real mess,” Mr. Loewenberg said, although he noted that a contingent of skilled cooks from Jamaica who had worked at one of his restaurants, Bell & Anchor, had not been able to get visas this summer. “People that used to come here for the summer and go to Florida or Vail in the winter, they can’t do that anymore because there’s no way to find housing. We’re lucky we have a good core group of local high school and college students who are here for the summer but it’s just not enough.”
“Affordable rentals are not attainable being what the market is out here now,” said Barbara Rizzi, manager of Tortorella Pools. “And we’ve lost people to Florida because they don’t want to sit in the traffic in the Hamptons anymore.”
The most painful irony for many is finding themselves hamstrung just when they thought they’d made it though the pandemic smoothly, a robust winter of business under their belts and a summer that is looking likely to be one of the biggest ever on the horizon.
More concerning, a robust winter made up for the losses to income from the summer of 2020, but the coming winter seems more likely to be a return to normal, with winter vacations and the return of workers to the offices of New York City likely to again put the “off” in off-season and lost income during these critical summer months again.
“Nobody is applying, it’s not that people are not paying enough, the workers are just not there,” Ms. Rizzi, whose company has been part of a broad coalition of business lobbying federal legislators to expand immigration visas to let in more seasonal workers, said. “America does not have a work force for seasonal positions. Everyone is short, every year, now. The workforce is just not there and I don’t know where they are going to come from in time to help anyone.”