Since he bought Muckenschnabel’s, John Cioffi Jr. said he has had trouble staffing the longstanding Rutland bar
“I’m looking for two good bartenders,” said Cioffi, who also owns Black Dog Guns and Shooting Supplies. “If worse comes to worst, I’ll run it myself.”
The lack of employees has limited his hours, leading to rumors the bar had closed. Cioffi is far from alone in his woes. State officials say a labor shortage continues to plague Vermont in general and the service industry in particular.
“The road to recovery continues to be long,” Vermont Secretary of Commerce Lindsay Kurrle said Wednesday. “Every sector across the state is reporting trouble hiring.”
While an oft-repeated bit of conventional wisdom suggests that the workforce will swell right back up with the upcoming expiration of expanded unemployment benefits, Kurrle said data from other states is indicating that might not be the case.
“None of us believe that is going to be the silver bullet,” she said. “We are seeing a host of people who were close to the retirement age going into the pandemic — maybe that was the nudge to retire. ... Workers are looking around and seeing in many sectors the opportunity to have a telework option.”
Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said people who have been out of the traditional workforce during the pandemic are having a number of conversations.
“The affordability and availability of child care has also become restrictive over the last year and a half,” she said. “People have used this opportunity to assess their lives and make different choices.”
Bishop also said that service industry jobs still carry with them a fear of infection.
“We’ve been trying to message to the public that vaccines are very safe,” she said. “There’s still this fear with the delta variant ... There are people who are worried about circulating in public. Maybe they have children under 12 who can’t get the vaccine. Maybe they have family members who have an autoimmune disorder.”
Lyle Jepson, executive director of Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR), said there was a concern that understaffing in the service industry could cause significant damage to an economy so reliant on tourism.
“It’s all about the experience,” he said. “People that are coming for fall foliage, they might not go back to that restaurant.”
Toward that end, Jepson said restricting hours in the face of staff shortages is likely the smart choice.
Bishop said wages have shot up as businesses compete for staff, but that it does not appear to have made a difference.
Kurrle said companies are likely to turn more to automation, but that only goes so far — don’t expect to see robot servers just yet.
“I do not think there’s a silver bullet here, but creativity is going to be really critical,” she said, noting that some restaurant owners are looking at ways of rotating staff. “Instead of having somebody that’s always cooking ... a couple days a week, they’re serving. Creativity and evolving the way you deliver services is going to be critical. It’s going to be the game-changer. It’s going to take a little bit of everything.”
Kurrle said there was “hope and excitement” about bringing more refugees to the state. Bishop echoed that, noting that before the pandemic the Vermont Futures Project put out a study saying the state needed 10,000 more people in the workforce.
“Vermont needs to, as a society, accept that we need more people here,” she said. “We need to welcome people whether they’re from New York or New Jersey or Afghanistan. This was true pre-pandemic and it’s true post-pandemic.”
Not every business reports a dire outlook. Don Billings, owner of Roots the Restaurant as well as The Bakery, said he was “OK” for staff.
“I work a lot right now and that’s probably part of the reason,” he said. “I’m in all my businesses almost daily. We’re OK. We’re not bursting at the seams, and sometimes I wish the climate was a little different.”
Billings said that aside from “giving people something to look forward to at work and keeping them busy,” he suspected that part of his success with staffing had to do with only having his restaurants open five days a week. Operating six days a week, he said, always created stress around scheduling.
“When you’re closed two days a week, they’re guaranteed, they have two days off to take care of their mental and life business,” he said. “You’re now, quote-unquote, a normal business.”