What’s behind the hospitality staffing crisis?

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On April 30, Siesta Key Oyster Bar posted a sudden announcement on its Facebook page: “In an effort to keep quality UP and standards of SKOB, AND WITH THE CURRENT LABOR SHORTAGE, it is our decision to sacrifice dinner service beginning this evening.” The post went on to cite staffing as well as staff training as reasons for the hiatus, adding that dinner service would resume three days later.

The post garnered more than 120 comments, a combination of consolation and appreciation for SKOB’s standards and its history on the key.

“I thought maybe we’d be criticized for closing, but we got a lot of support from the community,” said SKOB general manager Kristin Hale. In the days prior to the Facebook post, following the departure of the executive chef and several kitchen staff, remaining SKOB employees had been working hard to fill the holes. Front-of-house staff, including managers, volunteered to work shifts in the kitchen — handling everything from line work to washing dishes. “We’re blessed to have such dedicated employees, who said ‘100 percent, whatever you need,’” said Hale.

The SKOB announced on April 30 that it needed to suspend food service for three days due to a staffing shortage. (photo by John Morton)

SKOB’s plight seemed to echo what’s happening at restaurants, retailers, and hospitality businesses around the area and indeed the country: staff shortages forcing business owners and management to change their hours, limit their services, or even shut down — temporarily or permanently.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we had so much staff looking for work and not enough work. And now we have a ton of work and not enough staff,” said Stephanie Galvez, director of hospitality for Sarasota’s Ad-Vance Recruiting.

“Heaven forbid you get sick, there’s no one to cover you,” said Emily Leighton, a 20-year service industry veteran who worked as a manager at Blasé Café last year before coming to Daiquiri Deck in January. “We don’t have the backup staff for the just-in-cases.”

As COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out and more and more Americans return to traveling, in-person shopping, and dining out, the workers who serve those fields haven’t been returning at the same rate.

“In 2020, there were over 10,000 fewer jobs in the hospitality sector [in Sarasota County] than there were the year before,” said Dr. Phillip Downs, a senior partner for Downs & St. Germain Research. Downs’ Tallahassee-based firm partners with local organizations around the country, including Visit Sarasota, to track the economic impact of the hospitality industry on various destination communities.

“Since the start of this year, with demand picking back up, all the hotels and restaurants are struggling,” Downs said. “It’s not just Sarasota. It’s everywhere from New York to Dallas to smaller cities like Sarasota or Fort Myers. It’s any industry that doesn’t pay a lot of money to entry level. It’s happening in childcare, too.”

The consensus — from business owners, SKOB’s Facebook commenters, and even restaurant workers themselves — is that the staffing shortage stems in no small part from furloughed or laid-off workers choosing unemployment benefits and other COVID-19-related financial support over a return to the job market.

“The two main contributors are fear of getting COVID, and that the unemployment benefits have been sufficient to keep a significant percentage [of hospitality workers] on the sideline,” said Downs.

He added that a hypothetical restaurant worker might say, “Maybe I can make $20,000 if I go back to work, or I can make $15,000 on unemployment, so I’m going to stay home.”

In Florida, the maximum Weekly Benefit Amount for unemployment is $275. The standard 19-week allowance has been extended an additional 53 weeks under Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. On top of that, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation provides $300 a week through Sept. 4. (Though that federal assistance has been declined by governors in a handful of other states; as of press time, the funding was still available in Florida.)

Restaurants are struggling to keep up. “I am getting three to seven calls from new clients requesting help every week,” said Ad-Vance’s Galvez, “but since we had to raise our rates in order to pay staff more, not all clients are able to use our services due to their loss of revenue during the pandemic.”

But for restaurant workers, Galvez added, money is just one consideration: “I started realizing what I was getting from the candidates I was interviewing is that they were not interested in hospitality industry anymore. They’ve moved on to a different industry or they’re making it work from home. When the pandemic hit, people realized it was so easy for the employers to do just let them go. They didn’t like the way were treated. So, they’re like, ‘I’m going to find something else.’”

“It’s not so much people are being lazy,” said Daiquiri Deck’s Leighton, adding that time away from a stressful, high-paced environment has shifted some people’s priorities. “They’ve had time to be with their families, to invest in passions or side projects that might even be making them a little more money.

Chelsey Lucas, who’s worked as a server and bartender in Sarasota for five years, agreed that the job environment can be an issue. The service industry in particular demands workers spend long hours on their feet while appealing to customers for tips. And COVID-19 has further complicated stressors like childcare, on-the-job safety, and customer demands.

“I’m currently making an average of $800 per week [as a bartender], but I can understand that if I were on unemployment making even $500 or $600 a week, that the temptation to forego a couple hundred dollars would definitely be there, in favor of having my own time to myself, or to continue to stay safest, or for my mental health,” Lucas said. “It’s also difficult, when masks have become so politicized, to juggle and ensure everyone feels safe.”

Some customers want staff to be the “mask police”; others challenge servers and bartenders to take their masks off. “It puts us a little on edge because now you have to wonder if it will affect your tip if you don’t acquiesce,” said Lucas, who missed two weeks and approximately $1,800 in wages/tips when she tested positive for COVID-19 in December.

Hale confirmed that SKOB has been seeing far fewer job applicants “off the street” than in pre-COVID-19 times. “We weren’t getting any traffic as far as front-of-house [applicants] goes,” she said. “Normally people die to serve here. We never even had to advertise [job openings]. Same goes for back-of-house. We weren’t even getting walk-ins.”

SKOB’s three-day suspension of evening food service was in part due to the sudden departure of long-term employees who unexpectedly left their jobs, rather than furloughed workers who failed to return. But because SKOB traditionally promotes from within — sous chef Shawn Dougherty was promoted to executive chef, and other promotions followed down the line — the departures generated need for lower and entry-level workers.

While SKOB hasn’t seen the same number of walk-in applicants, Hale estimated that she hired as many as six new employees who’d applied after seeing the Facebook post. SKOB has also had success hiring candidates from job sites like Indeed and Zip Recruiter. In this new, post-COVID-19 hospitality landscape, online job postings may be the most efficient solution for the drop in walk-in applicants.

By training these new employees alongside the day staff, and giving the kitchen that weekend’s dinner shifts off, SKOB was able to resume full dinner service on May 3.

It should be noted that an established, island-destination restaurant like SKOB, with relatively low turnover and a tradition of promoting from within, might have at least some advantage in recruiting even entry-level staff over mainland, corporate eateries like Chili’s or McDonald’s, both of which have closed Sarasota locations in recent months due to staff shortages.

As pandemic conditions wane and business picks up, Siesta Key’s hospitality-rich economy will continue to experience a higher demand for workers. “We’re going to be living with this through at least the end of 2021,” said Downs. But island businesses may at least be more appealing to those people who do choose to return to the workforce.

“At least on Siesta Key, there’s a higher concentration of [customers] who are just here to have fun,” said Leighton.

Still, the service industry remains a challenging place in the best of times. As SKOB fully recovered from its hiatus with ample, fully trained and dedicated staff members, Hale estimates she was working 70-hour weeks, while her new executive chef Dougherty was pushing 100.

“I anticipate a busy summer,” she said.

Hannah Wallace
Author: Hannah Wallace

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