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Help Wanted

Photo by Betsy Kehne.

Short-staffed service industry calls for employees 

By Kathy Knotts 

As pandemic restrictions are lifted at restaurants locally and nationwide, a vaccinated and hungry public is read to dine out again. But for an industry hit hard by coronavirus-driven restrictions over the past 13 months, getting back to normal is proving more difficult than expected. Businesses have more jobs than employees.

The national unemployment rate was 6.1 percent in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While they recorded notable job gains in leisure and hospitality from March to April, it may not be enough to sustain the service industry. 

Restaurant owners say a shortage of workers returning to the service industry is forcing them to make tough choices as the busy summer dining season approaches. 

For Anthony Clarke of the Irish Restaurant Company a reduction in staff has meant a reduction in the days and hours his restaurants will be open. Clarke made the decision last weekend to close Brian Boru in Severna Park and Killarney House in Davidsonville on Mondays, and drop lunch hours on Tuesdays at Brian Boru. Galway Bay in Annapolis and Pirate’s Cove in Galesville will continue to operate as usual. 

“It’s a nationwide crisis that affects many industries,” says Clarke. “I have 30 positions that I could fill today. Normally I’d have 100 applicants for the four restaurants. When I checked the other day, I have eight.” 

Clarke blames a government that continues to supplement unemployment, saying that the work force finds it more profitable to not work. “The crisis has forced the workers that we do have—loyal employees—that couldn’t go on unemployment for whatever reason, these dedicated people that want to work are working doubles on back-to-back days.” 

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was signed into law on March 11. ARPA extended several programs that were created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act from last March and extended by the Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers (CAUW) Act in December. Under ARPA, these programs are in effect in Maryland until the week ending September 4, 2021.  

“We know the labor shortage is hitting our service industry sectors very hard right now,” says Kelly Robertson-Slagle, director of the Calvert County Department of Economic Development. “The situation is compounded by the fact that many of these businesses are trying to ramp up following a year of COVID while also trying to ensure adequate staffing during the peak of our tourism season.” Calvert County directs prospective workers to resources like the College of Southern Maryland, the Tri-County Council, the Maryland Department of Labor and the Arc of Southern Maryland. 

The Irish Restaurant Company’s current solution is to hold hiring open houses to encourage people to walk in and apply, but turnout for these has been low as well. One held at Pirate’s Cove last month netted just three applicants, one of whom was a 14-year-old looking for a first job. “He turned out to be a very loyal and reliable worker and when school is out, he will get more hours,” said Clarke. 

Clarke is also offering referral bonuses of $50 to $100 to those who bring in new employees. “I am taking calls immediately, hiring on the spot, you can start today if you want to work.” 

For the Davis family, owners of Edgewater Restaurant, staffing isn’t currently a problem. “Most of my employees wanted to return to work. I had a few leave, but luckily we hired seven new young employees to fill the positions. Our older employees are mainly family members so we are in a different position than most area restaurants. I do hear about many of my friends’ restaurants struggling to get employees due to them making more money with the supplement on unemployment.” 

Brian Smith of Rip’s Country Inn in Bowie bemoans potential employees who don’t show up for an interview or return after their first day. “Rip’s is definitely having a hard time staffing. We are looking for at least three servers, two bartenders, a dishwasher, and line cook. We have received roughly 10 applications for server and bartender combined, three showed for interviews and one has actually started,” says Smith. “We have honestly just been ghosted with no reason for not accepting the position offered … I really wish we had more people interested in the service industry right now.” 

Clarke says after a busy Mother’s Day weekend, when he had staff working from 9am until the last order, he knew something had to change. “I closed the kitchen at 7pm, just to give them time to recover … I’m trying to protect them. They work long hours and when you do it for too long it gets really tiring,” he says. “You need a lot of energy to work in restaurants and to work with the public. It’s mentally and physically stressful. It’s a tough job.” 

Other parts of the service industry share in the struggle. Lucia Tucker, owner of Cleaning Maid Easy in Deale, has seen a “significant drop in the number of applicants since March 2020. Obviously, with COVID we knew that there would be a natural and logical fear of getting out and into homes or businesses to clean.” 

Tucker says she is always hiring, running help wanted ads consistently, offering sign-on bonuses and referral bonuses, plus emphasizing the “career-oriented positions” she offers. She says an online ad that used to bring her 20 applicants now only nets her one a month. 

“Hiring has been very difficult, yes. We have seen an increase in inquiries for cleaning, more intensely now than I have in 18 years. This sudden increase has put me in a frenzy to find more people more quickly, which is why the focus on not being able to find people is in the spotlight. Just today, we had a person who was starting at $15 per hour, just not show up for their first day of work.” 

Yet, Tucker remains hopeful. “As more people receive their vaccines, as families are able to utilize daycares, in-person school and child care, as well as a change to unemployment funding, we will see a great influx of individuals ready to get back out into the workforce.” 

The broader hospitality industry is feeling a similar pinch. Enough that Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County (VAAAC) and Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation (AAWDC) are teaming up to host a virtual hiring event in June to help hospitality industry employers connect with qualified workers as they gear up for increased business following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. 
 
“Every sector within our industry was affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and tourism in every community across the nation has suffered … As a destination marketing organization, Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County works to drive visitors—and the associated economic growth — to local businesses and partners, but we want to go a step further. We want to do what we can to help ensure our hospitality businesses will have the staffing they need to help drive and reap the benefits of the economic recovery and ensure an exceptional visitor experience,” said VAAAC Executive Director Kristen Pironis.  
 
A four-week VAAAC recruitment campaign is running through June 11. Via radio, digital display, and social media advertising, the organization will be encouraging friendly, talented, motivated, hard-working individuals to “Apply Now.” The ads will drive job seekers to a newly created VAAAC Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality job board on the VAAAC website (www.visitannapolis.org).