Business owners try to adapt as labor shortage continues

Some stores and restaurants have cut back their open days, and managers say they have stepped in to try to fill the gaps.

by Emily Fagell | 10/22/21 5:05am

by Natalie Dameron / The Dartmouth

Many Hanover businesses have been struck by the pandemic-driven labor shortage, reporting extended wait times, reduced operating hours and longer shifts for employees. 

Dirt Cowboy Cafe has gone from having 14 full-time employees before the pandemic to relying on mostly part-time employees this fall — who in aggregate are the equivalent of roughly six full-time workers, according to owner Thomas Guerra. Likewise, Boloco general manager Ashley Widmer said the restaurant currently employs 20 to 25 people, compared to 35 or 40 over the summer. And John Haas — whose wife, Melissa Haas, owns local business Lemon Tree — said the boutique currently has three full-time and two part-time employees, compared to four full-time and “at least two to four” part-time workers before the pandemic. 

“There were many times [prior to the pandemic] we weren't fully staffed, but [Lemon Tree] was maybe down one or two part-timers at most,” Haas said. “We’ve never been this low ever. We could easily use five employees right now.”

Many business owners and managers have attributed the shortage to COVID-19 related health concerns, the continued impacts of expanded unemployment benefits — which expired in September — or an overall shift in the labor pool away from restaurant and retail industries.

“I think that some people got quite a bit of money through the government relief,” Guerra said. “With COVID still around, I think there’s quite a few people probably who just say, ‘You know what? I don’t need to work right now, so I’m just going to sit on the sidelines until things clear up a little bit more.’” 

Guerra added that COVID-19 provided a “reset” for restaurant workers — many of whom have come to the conclusion over the course of the pandemic that  they may be better served by pursuing opportunities away from food service, which he said “doesn’t have the greatest reputation.”. 

In response to the shortage, many businesses have reduced hours or closed for certain days of the week altogether. Widmer said that Boloco is currently closed on Sundays and is operating with shortened hours. Dirt Cowboy recently decided to close on Sundays and Wednesdays, resulting in unaware customers “dropping by [and] pulling on the door,” Guerra said.

For Guerra, however, the most profound effect of the labor shortage has been the “stress” of staying afloat.

“I would say that the biggest impact [on] me is just the stress,” he said. “Just the idea that if it gets any worse, what am I going to do, and will it get to the point where I begin to start having problems? [I have] almost 30 years of my life invested into this location here.”

In response to the labor shortage, workers have stepped up to work overtime, and owners and managers have increased their own working hours, Widmer said. 

“We’ve tried to be good to the employees and not put the burden on them,” Haas said. “It’s my wife and I coming in and working way more hours. I have [another] job, so I’ve been using all my vacation time for my job to come in and help work with the store like I’m doing today. We’ve had to fill in the gaps, but it’s getting difficult because we work seven days a week, essentially.”

Likewise, Guerra said he is currently devoting his “life” to keeping Dirt Cowboy open.

“I did 80 hours myself [last week],” he said. “There’s no time for anything. I’ve got a kayak strapped to my roof — I haven’t been able to put it in the water. I’ve got an electric skateboard — I haven't been able to get on that. And I play classical guitar — I haven’t touched a guitar in six weeks, or something like that. So my life is just trying to keep this place operating.”

Although Still North Books and Bar owner Allie Levy ’11 noted that her business is not short-staffed and has “extra people,” she said the bookstore has been impacted by the changed schedules of other shops. According to Levy, the cafe has been flooded with customers since other coffee shops — such as Starbucks and Dirt Cowboy — have reduced their hours.

“Our cafe specifically is doing volume that’s much higher than I would’ve anticipated because there [are] fewer options open as consistently as we are,” she said. “This increase in demand because other places are not fully open is definitely wearing on the team.”

Levy added that Still North Books and Bar has had to take more aggressive hiring measures.

“We have been able to hire, but we have felt the effects of the labor shortage,” Levy said. “We’ve seen way fewer applicants than we’ve seen in the past, and we’ve also had to act incredibly quickly on applicants that we are getting to make sure that they don’t receive another offer in the meantime.”

Levy explained that she has offered many employees jobs “on the spot” instead of waiting in order to ensure she could fill positions. She said her business has been “extraordinarily lucky” that everyone she has hired in this manner is “very much somebody that [she] would want on [their] team regardless.”

Other businesses are also adjusting hiring and employment practices in order to attract more employees. According to Widmer, Boloco has raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Guerra added that he is focusing on workplace culture, in addition to pay.

“I’m paying as much as I can,” Guerra said. “I try to create a work environment where it’s not a place that says, ‘No, we[’ve] got to open.’ I could probably open on Sundays, but that would stretch my staff more than they’d be comfortable being stretched…  [I want] to make sure that the work environment itself stays nice, that it’s a job that people enjoy.”

Many businesses said they are still looking to hire, but Haas noted that labor is a constant  problem in the Upper Valley. 

“Unemployment in the Upper Valley has always been very, very low,” Haas said. “It has never been easy to get people to come. It just has become exceptionally difficult right now.”