‘It’s hard to compete with unemployment’: RI restaurants struggle with staffing

Business News

WARREN, R.I. (WPRI) — Although restaurant owners have waited over a year for customers to become eager to dine out and fill their businesses, now they say they can’t keep up with the demand due to short-staffing issues.

With restaurants not having enough staff, it’s worrisome for state leaders as Rhode Island enters into the busy tourism months ahead.

The summer is when restaurants boost their staff in anticipation of the busiest time of the year for them, but this year, they are being forced to scale back.

Not only do restaurants have to entice skilled workers back into their kitchens, but they are also competing with every other restaurant doing the same.

Restaurants are once again packed with patrons but kitchens are empty. The hard reality caused The Square Peg in Warren to announce they’d be closed on Sundays due to a lack of kitchen staff.

“We’d love to be open and make more money, but we just literally don’t have the staff to do it,” co-owner Joel Cary said.

“In our 10 years in business, we’ve never seen such a shortage in available, qualified candidates. It’s an issue [that] many restaurants are dealing with right now,” the restaurant posted on Facebook.

“[We] started placing ads like we do on typical job search engines and it’s just been a wasteland,” Cary added. “In a typical year, if we posted and we do paid searches, I would see anywhere between 20 and 30 applicants a week. We’re now averaging maybe one or two.”

Their other restaurant, Amy’s Place, has been booming as they switched to more of a takeout and online order model.

The Square Peg, however, relies heavily on dining in, whether that is indoors or outdoors.

“The main thing, I think, is it’s hard to compete with unemployment and you get the extra $300 and you’re not working,” co-owner Amy Cary said.

That exact sentiment is also being felt by Newport Restaurant Group.

“We have 33 cook positions available in Newport right now, and we haven’t filled any of them in four weeks,” Newport Restaurant Group chief operating officer Casey Riley said.

Riley said the company is looking to hire and fill 400 jobs across its restaurants.

At the company’s Newport County restaurants, managers are offering an additional incentive that Riley hopes will counter the $300 weekly federal stimulus those on unemployment are currently collecting.

“We’re offering a weekly bonus through the summertime in addition to your hourly pay,” Riley said. “So your hourly pay would be what you get paid. If you get paid overtime, you get that too, and then you get an additional bonus per week.”

Newport Restaurant Group: See open positions and apply here »

According to the R.I. Department of Labor and Training (DLT), 8,400 people who once worked in the accommodation and service sector were collecting unemployment as of the latest data from the week of March 13.

Their average weekly check was $270 from the state, plus the additional $300 federal stimulus money.

The DLT said 1,550 of those collecting were still working part-time. They were allowed to collect and get the $300 stimulus if they earned less at work than their weekly benefit amount.

Additionally, the DLT says the greater restaurant sector has recovered 65% of jobs lost during the pandemic.

Gov. Dan McKee acknowledged the issue in last week’s weekly coronavirus briefing, saying he would work on a plan that helps get more people hired in this sector. He says he knows it’s a race against the clock as the busy tourism months are fast approaching.

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