Edson Hill, a boutique Stowe inn with an attached fine-dining restaurant, has made it through the pandemic mostly intact, its spacious patio giving diners a place to spread out, despite diminished tourist traffic, leaving the innkeepers feeling poised for a summer of relative normalcy.
Still, they’re having trouble hiring.
“We are looking for staff members at the moment and in truth, the response has not been what we expect,” said Peter Morris, Edson Hill’s food and beverage manager. “I don’t know exactly the rationale behind it. Our server position here is a pretty lucrative position and we’ve had effectively zero responses at this point in time.”
Edson Hill’s reliable business makes it a desirable serving position in town — with generous tips all but guaranteed — but there hasn’t been a single bite on two currently open positions. Though there’s been no discussion of offering increased base pay or a sign-on bonus — a strategy other restaurants are using to entice workers — Morris may reconsider depending on how the summer shapes up.
Morris is hopeful that, as the younger demographic gets vaccinated, interest in open positions will pick up. But as the approaching summer season promises a full return of Stowe’s tourism economy, he’s not alone in his hiring anxiety.
According to data provided by the Vermont Department of Labor, the restaurant and bar sector alone lost 29 percent of jobs from the third quarter in 2019 to the third quarter in 2020, over 6,000 jobs across the state. Lamoille County saw a loss of slightly under the state average, losing 24 percent, or 266 jobs, in the industry.
Soon-to-be-released data for 2021 will reveal how many of those jobs have returned, but one thing is certain: Employers are desperate to hire.
“Employers are reaching out to us all the time saying we’re trying to hire and they’re not saying ‘we’re trying to fill one position.’ They’re trying to fill multiple positions. There are seasonal employers like the construction industry that have a lot of shovel-ready projects and are having difficulty hiring,” said Mathew Barewicz, economic and labor market information chief with the Vermont Department of Labor.
Just up Stagecoach Road, in the outer orbit of Stowe’s tourism zone, Jason Pacioni at Black Diamond BBQ in Morristown has done his best to keep his restaurant running with a crew of staff serving mainstay regulars. But Pacioni, too, is struggling like never before to bring in new employees.
“I think people moved on when everything closed down. They found different, more reliable work or turned a passion into a business,” Pacioni said on the dearth of willing restaurant workers. A thinner staff has meant the restaurant cutting open hours, like lunch hours on Saturdays.
Bringing in new employees represents just one part of compounding costs eating away at Pacioni’s bottom line. Trying to attract new staff with higher wages means inflating pay rates across the board, as he refuses to pay a fresh face more than the cooks and servers who have stood by the Vermont-style barbecue restaurant.
Another issue of concern is the high cost of meat. If costs keep rising, Pacioni said he may have to pass them on to customers, charging more per meal. In doing so, he’s worried he may alienate the loyal customer base he depends upon.
“I’ve had to eat some of the losses I’ve experienced during COVID,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to eat any more.”
Retreat of the aged
When the school year resumed for partial in-person learning, Lamoille Valley Transportation saw seven former school bus drivers decline to return to their routes.
They were all older or had underlying medical conditions and were among the most vulnerable population when it came to the effects of COVID-19. They feared the prospect of a job in which they would be interacting with children who would not be vaccinated before the end of the school year.
The job was just no longer worth the risk.
“We haven’t been able to make up for any of that, and that’s been since last fall. The one thing that has helped is that capacity on school buses has been lower, because of remote learning and the different days that the kids go to school,” said Tracey Rogalski, a human resources representative with the business. “But once school goes back to in-person, which I think we’re anticipating that it’s going to in the fall, these bus routes will be full and double what we’re running right now. We do not have the drivers for that.”
Vermont’s aging population has meant a steady drop in workforce participation, even prior to the pandemic. Since the majority of the Baby Boomer generation turned 65 in 2011, the state has seen an ongoing decline in the labor force as they retire, according to the Department of Labor.
From March 2020 to March 2021, nearly 30,000 people have left the workforce, according to the state, a staggering loss that officials are hopeful will be remedied by a return to normal life as the pandemic wanes.
In the meantime, Rogalski is doing what she can to entice drivers to sign on with the bus company. If someone is willing to work the irregular shift times dictated by school hours, the company offers a competitive salary for qualified drivers and is even willing to help train and certify interested candidates. They’re also offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus for qualified drivers.
Yankee Home Solutions, a property management company in Stowe owned by AJ Shinners, offers everything from lawn care to snow removal to trash collection and other caretaker services.
The explosion of out-of-state and new homeowners in Stowe, spurred by the pandemic, should’ve been a boon for him. Instead, he’s had to turn away business due to staffing.
Shinners blames the ongoing unemployment benefits his potential workforce is collecting as a main cause for his hiring woes. He claimed he’s even locked in a fight with a former employee trying to collect unemployment benefits while he’s still working and getting paid cash under the table by a competitor.
The seasonal and foreign workers he’s relied upon in the past have also dried up. The kids, in his opinion, just don’t want to do the difficult work he’s offering any longer. A landlord, as well as an employer, Shinners doesn’t care for the eviction moratorium either.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts, where a lot of factors add up to be a big problem,” he said. “It’s the lack of foreign help that we’re not having right now. It’s the unemployment checks that are going out. The young kids don’t work. They’re just not pressured into working as much, their parents pay for a lot more. It’s the service industry, this isn’t what people want to do. It’s not glamorous, but someone has to do it.”
Shinners said his pay is competitive, that entry level novices will still get paid in the mid-teens while experienced workers can make around $20 an hour.
It’s true that unemployment claims are still high in the state of Vermont. Though down from a pandemic height of nearly 100,000 claims in a week, the state is still seeing around 30,000 claims a week. In previous winters, when claims are usually at their highest, the state might see about 6,000 claims a week.
Some states have ended their involvement with the federal unemployment supplemental programs, blaming it for difficulties low-wage employers are having with hiring.
Many economists disagree, however, that enhanced unemployment benefits are the primary contributing factor to these difficulties, and that a willingness to return varies across employment industries.
“A consistent theme is how inconsistent the messages are depending on which population you speak to, because it is a global health pandemic. It affects people differently,” Barewicz said. “For some people, it’s their own personal health or the health of someone in their household. It’s childcare or it’s the school systems being partially remote. There are so many different ways that this is impacting the economy, which ultimately gets us back to the point that, until the global health pandemic is resolved in some significant fashion, our true economic recovery cannot be achieved. Each state handles this differently. Vermont’s focus has been on the individual because it’s a global health scare and this is serious stuff.”
At Idletyme Brewing Company in Stowe, general manager John Neville has instituted an unusual program in order to attract employees to work in the restaurant’s front of house — by promising an investment in their future.
Neville is grappling with some of the same issues plaguing Shinners and other businesses. Seasonal and foreign workers are harder to come by and turnover is abundant. So Neville converted a fund originally maintained to help workers with emergency expenses into Pay It Forward Scholarships.
The scholarships, aimed at local high school and college students, awards $1,500 for any accredited two-year, four-year or vocational program to an employee who’s worked at least 300 hours in the scholarship year, which is awarded each fall.
“To a certain degree, it has changed our dynamic in having to constantly hire and retrain seasonal staff and allowed us to hire some young people, train them and get them involved in the business to really create that kind of familial atmosphere for us. That keeps them around for the long term, and I’m not just hiring new faces for a season,” Neville said.
Though the busyness of the restaurant and brewery requires up to 100 employees at a time and not all of the roles can be filled with young workers — someone still has to be able to legally sell beer, after all — the focus on younger workers is helping to fill a lot holes, reduce turnover and stands as an investment in the community.
“We have two young ladies that work here that have been a host and busser for me for over a year now that have improved to the point where they can expedite and work with some really seasoned professionals in a kitchen, get the job done on a busy day and not miss a beat,” Neville said. “So we are seeing that development and that progression that I do love to see. I want people to be able to excel here.”