PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island and Maine have two cities — Providence and Portland — that are home to some of New England’s most vibrant food scenes. Yet, they are still starving for workers to run their restaurants.
As of July 2023, 19 states and the District of Columbia still had filled fewer eating and drinking place jobs than they did in July 2019, about one year before the pandemic began. In New England, that group is led by Maine, which had 5 percent fewer jobs in restaurants compared to its pre-pandemic employment levels, followed by Rhode Island, which had 3.1 percent fewer jobs compared to 2019.
“This past three-year burn is quite substantial,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group at the National Restaurant Association.
The hospitality and tourism industries accounted for much of the country’s job growth prior to the pandemic. But as of July 2023, the industries were experiencing more than 1 million job vacancies, even as other sectors have been on the route to recovery.
The food service and accommodation (tourism) industry totals 13.6 percent of the private employment in Rhode Island, making it the second largest industry in the state. Both sectors desperately need workers, and the state’s unemployment level stands around 2.8 percent, one of the lowest in decades.
“Pre-pandemic unemployment was 3.5 percent. [We] were struggling to find employees back then,” said Heather Singleton, chief operating officer of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. “We’re all feeling the pinch.”
During the Rhode Island Hospitality Association’s 2023 economic outlook meeting on Wednesday, Singleton encouraged a room full of hoteliers and restaurant owners to “give someone a second chance” who may have a criminal background. “And hire a hero; veterans return to civilian life and need a job,” she said.
It’s not like restaurant workers of pre-COVID times completely vanished.
The government-mandated shutdowns, followed by the long-term effects of the pandemic, forced many industry veterans to switch careers in pursuit of more flexibility, stability, and better pay and benefits. In other cases, a cluster of retirements made room for low-wage workers to move up in their careers, or in other professional occupations. Jobs that remained empty, according to a recent study, were less desirable with lower wages, fewer skills, and required more interactions with customers.
In other cases, some businesses have historically only prepared themselves seasonally, instead of for the long term.
“Our industry often has turnover in the entry level roles. These positions are frequently sought after as summer jobs and not as career opportunities. This is acute in Maine because of our seasonality,” Derek Fassett, the director of education and workforce development at the HospitalityMaine Education Foundation, told the Globe. “These roles must be reinvented as the steppingstones into rewarding and fulfilling careers. Ultimately businesses need to adapt and invest in their workforce for long time viability, not just one season at a time.”
Other factors are also affecting New England’s states, such as the continued migration to the Southeast and Western part of the country due to the rise of remote work, relocation, and increased living costs that have perpetuated the northern part of the country, said Riehle.
States like Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Utah are expected to grow in population by more than 8 percent by 2030, according to Moody’s Analytics. These states are also overwhelmingly exceeding their pre-pandemic restaurant staffing levels, according to data by the National Restaurant Association.
In major metropolitan areas, the slow return of office workers is also preventing certain food service businesses from making a comeback. Breakfast diners and lunch spots that used to be staples in downtowns, “are being displaced to more suburban and rural areas, where they pick up individuals who are working remotely,” said Riehle.
Local trade organizations have tried to help fill the gap.
Fassett said HospitalityMaine has developed 11 occupational apprenticeships in hospitality since launching the program with a grant last year. They’re also working to create a statewide talent pipeline, covering line cooks, maintenance, and event management.
“We even have a full-time navigator on staff who is an apprentice himself,” said Fassett. “So we are walking the talk.”
The Rhode Island Hospitality Association officers cooking apprenticeships, hospitality training academy classes, among other workforce programs. The association also has a 401 (k) program available in order to retain workers.
“We need to do more to keep these people in our industry,” said Dale Venturini, the CEO and president of the association. “We heard this pre-COVID and now we are hearing it loud and clear.”
Some local businesses have tried innovative solutions to assist staffing woes, like “Bruno,” the service robot that delivers piping-hot pizzas right to your table at Antonio’s Pizza in Newport. Lemongrass in Warwick tested out a cat-shaped robot that has the restaurant’s layout memorized and helps servers deliver multiple plates of sushi at once.
Despite embracing technology, recruitment and retention of workers has become one of the largest challenges for restaurateurs, which ultimately affects bottom lines.
Riehle said restaurant operators saw their labor costs increase by 9 percent. This year, it’s projected to cost another 6.4 percent, on average.
“If anybody told restaurant operators in the industry that you would, in essence, get close to 30 percent growth in labor costs in a three-year period, it would be hard to comprehend,” said Riehle. “You would say the business model can’t sustain.”