PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As Rhode Island officials plan to further loosen restrictions put in place during the pandemic, several business owners tell 12 News they’re struggling to hire new employees.

Sarah Bratko from the R.I. Hospitality Association said most businesses aren’t seeing applications come in like they used to.

“We’ve been told this is the next pandemic facing our industry,” she said.

Bill Kitsilis, owner of Antonio’s Pizza by the Slice, said he’s down 25% when it comes to staffing.

“We are in a really tight spot,” he said. “It’s been tough. We have called in favors from people who have worked here in the past, who have come to pick up a shift, who have other full-time jobs, to try to make it more manageable.”

Kitsilis said his staffing level has forced him to keep his dining room partially closed, since they don’t have enough people to run the front and back of house.

“That’s putting a lot of pressure on the people I already have,” he added.

Charlie Holder, manager at Midtown Oyster Bar in Newport, tells 12 News he’s in the same boat.

“Trying to hire people has been an issue,” he said. “[If] the state government says it’s safe, hopefully they’ll come back and say ‘I can make more money at work then I can on unemployment.'”

Restaurants are not the only ones struggling to hire more staff. From the hospitality industry to the trade industry, hiring has become difficult across the board.

“I’ve got months’ worth of work ready to go and it’s just trying to keep up with it,” said Patrick Beattie, owner of Beattie Construction.

Evan Smith, CEO of Discover Newport, said while the lifting of restrictions is great news for all sectors of tourism, staffing will be a challenge, especially since most in the hospitality industry come from overseas.

“We can’t get international assistance because a lot of the J-1 Visa programs have been closed,” Smith explained.

Bratko said business owners have told her they believe increased unemployment benefits and safety concerns are fueling everyone’s hesitation to return to work.

“It’s a combination of factors,” Bratko said. “There’s not really one magic answer.”

“It’s incredibly frustrating that, right on the cusp of us reopening, you’re faced with this other challenge that is partially due to the pandemic,” she continued. “The impact on the industry will be just as problematic to the industry as the state shutdowns.”

Matt Weldon, the acting director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training (DLT), said they expect to renew several rules that were suspended during the pandemic.

“Working will pay off,” he said. “It will pay more to go to work than it will not to.”

In a matter of weeks, Weldon said those receiving unemployment will have to prove they’re looking for a job to continue receiving benefits.

“The DLT is not trying to think of this as a way to be punitive and say, ‘Hey listen, it’s time to get off unemployment and go to work,'” Weldon explained. “This is meant to get people connected with the economy.”

McKee is also working with lawmakers to create a program that would incentivize returning to work. He hopes that by loosening restrictions, those who have been out of work will feel more comfortable jumping back in.