Gap between jobs and workers leads Upper Valley employers to cut back operations

Ongoing inability to find workers is hampering businesses hoping to recover from the pandemic

Dunk’s Sports Grill, a new restaurant and bar in Hanover, had to close its lunch shift four days after it opened earlier this month.

Longtime Hanover cafe Dirt Cowboy was closed more days last week than it was open.

The Tenney Brook Market convenience store in Wilder has posted on its front door that it now closes weekdays at 2 p.m. and all weekend.

Popular truck stop diners The Fort in Lebanon and P&H Truckstop in Wells River, Vt., are closing an hour earlier each night for dinner.

Only window service and outdoor dining will be available at The Skinny Pancake in Quechee until indoor table dining reopens in June.

And Wicked Awesome BBQ is open only four days a week — for takeout only.

The reason all these businesses are cutting back hours and service?

They all say they can’t get workers to fill the jobs.

“For the last year and a half, the problem was not enough business,” Wicked Awesome owner David McInnis said from the back porch of his White River Junction restaurant as the wood burning inside the smoker scented the air. “Now that business is returning, the problem is I can’t find any employees.”

McInnis last week took delivery of a new, custom-made $14,000 refrigerated beer wagon that he plans to haul, along with his smoker, to weddings, parties and other events as the summer catering season gets underway.

But with calls for catering jobs coming in daily, McInnis has had to trim his barbecue operation, such as eliminating table service in the dining room, because he doesn’t have the workers to run all three parts of his business: restaurant, food truck and catering.

“Normally I’d need 15 to 20 people. Right now, I have six,” McInnis said, noting that two of the six include his wife and daughter. “It’s going to be thin.”

Whether it’s the added $300-per-week unemployment payment many business owners cite or an overall reluctance of low-wage employees to return to often-precarious work settings amid Covid-19, Upper Valley businesses report they have a surfeit of jobs and shortage of workers. The ongoing inability to find new workers is hampering businesses hoping to recover as they emerge from the pandemic.

‘Could easily fill’ jobs

Bruce Bergeron, owner of the Upper Valley-based Jake’s Market & Deli convenience store chain, said they have not yet had to reduce store operating hours but they nonetheless are missing a critical window to grow because they can’t meet customer demand.

“We have opportunities to expand our hours, keep some of our delis open longer, but we don’t have the people to do it,” he said, even though Jake’s is paying $4 to $5 hour more than it was 24 to 36 months ago. (Jake’s starting wages begin at $12 to $14 per hour, although food service workers “are a little higher” than cashiers.)

“We could easily add two to three positions at each of our 10 stores,” Bergeron said.

Dan Dukeshire, general manager of the 16 Tenney Brook Market convenience outlets operated by Midway Oil Co., said the lack of job applicants is leading to serious consequences at some of their stores.

“In 42 years in business I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Dukeshire, who pointed out that the problem is particularly acute at Tenney Brook’s store at the Mobil gas station on Route 5 in Wilder, where he has only one manager — who splits her time with the Randolph store — and one other employee to run the convenience market.

Normally, Dukeshire said, he requires three or four full-time employees and three part-time employees per store. But because the company isn’t getting applications for open positions, “we’ve had to significantly reduce our daily and weekly operating times,” Dukeshire said.

The labor shortage is hurting restaurants just as they are trying to staff up for the summer, the busiest time of the year for many in the Upper Valley as they fill up with seasonal residents and tourists.

Dunk’s Sports Grill, which opened May 6 in the former Salt Hill Pub space in Hanover, had to suspend its lunch service five days later.

Owner Tony Barnett said Dunk’s opened to an encouraging start, but difficulty in finding kitchen staff quickly made it apparent they couldn’t handle two meal shifts.

Although the restaurant business has a high turnover even in the best of times, the current lack of workers is forcing Barnett, who also owns Molly’s, Jesse’s and Snax, to get in front of the grill himself and pinch hit in the kitchen just to keep dinner service.

“I’ve been cooking every day,” Barnett said.

Barnett said his restaurants lost 40% of their sales last summer, and after he had to furlough staff many former employees whom he might draw upon have left the business.

“They got jobs outside the industry, and it’s hard to lure them back in,” Barnett said.

Filling in to make up for the dearth of workers is familiar to Meredith Johnson, owner of the Ice Cream Fore-U stand along Route 12A in West Lebanon.

Johnson said via email that they’ve been able to keep open for their regular 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily hours, although they made adjustments for the availability of students, who typically make up a good number of their employees. That included pushing back opening from March to May 1.

But Johnson said the only way Ice Cream Fore-U has been able to keep its “normal hours” is that she and her sister “are literally working 100- and 90-hour workweeks.”

“We typically have a stack of applications to choose from with applicants that have the availability we need, but that is not the case this season,” Johnson said. She added that the stand is usually open well into October, but she doesn’t know what will happen when the majority of her staff head back to the classroom in September.

‘No one has an answer’

Business owners aren’t the only ones grasping for solutions to the disconnect between available jobs and available workers. Last week, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu notified the U.S. Department of Labor that the Granite State would no longer participate in the federal $300-a-week supplemental unemployment program but instead direct those funds into one-time stipends of $500 or $1,000 for people once they’ve returned to the workforce for at least eight weeks.

Whether a stipend or the end of weekly supplemental payments actually will drive low-wage earners back into the fold remains to be seen. Studies during the pandemic have found scant evidence that increased unemployment payments have disincentivized workers from seeking jobs — many analysts say it’s the quality and wages of the jobs on offer, or larger questions brought on by the pandemic about what people value in an employer.

Tenney Brook Market’s Dukeshire isn’t sanguine that job applications will return to pre-pandemic levels once the extra payments end. Rather, he sees larger structural and policy issues at play that are affecting the economy and the available labor pool.

“Where are we going to get employees from? It’s that simple,” Dukeshire said. “And no one has an answer.”

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