Hiring is a critical part of any business, but for seasonal businesses in places like ski resorts and beach towns, there is an added urgency and time pressure that repeats annually. Many businesses must hire an entire staff with a limited budget in limited time for a limited season.
As with all things, COVID-19 has turned what is a normal type of nightmare on its head.
RNN is based in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a town that has evolved from relying heavily on its fishing industry, to increasingly leaning on seasonal tourism for revenue. We sat down with multiple restaurant owners and managers to understand how they are preparing for the abnormal new normal. They all requested anonymity, due to the intimate, and highly competitive, of hiring in a seasonal town. As one hiring manager told us “Yeah. It’s a little cutthroat. There are only so many great bartenders, cooks, waitstaff to go around. You don’t want to show weakness.”
The routine goes something like this, in a normal season. Every year, there’s a wait to hear from staff from past seasons, wondering which had moved up to “real jobs” (a term despised in industry). Which college students still wanted summer jobs. Hoping to hear from the school teachers that were looking for a summer gig, returning cooks dishwashers, bussers, bartenders, etc. With luck, there is a sense for when your season ends, and how much time will be needed to balance time with available people - who wanted to work a job that was not only not forever but not even for a year. There’s an inherent flight-risk with seasonal working. As one long-term manager said: “Basically, it’s the balancing of needing them more than they need you. All the while competing with other seasonal restaurants for good people.”
With the pandemic, the challenges become multifaceted. Balancing in the possibility of losing many of the attractions that draw people to those destinations in the first place, with social distancing closing beaches and historical sites, and restricting the number of people in a restaurant, hiring has become an even bigger challenge.
“What I’m finding is the biggest challenge is the uncertainty. When you have a 200 seat restaurant and will only be able to seat 50 people for the foreseeable future, and a large staff of many returning every year that are like family, hard decisions have to be made. It’s really challenging math,” the owner of a large waterfront restaurant added.
One restaurant manager hopes to bring back his whole staff while admitting to a grimmer reality: “If I bring back 50-60%, I am doing a good job this year.” To do even that he’ll have to cut pay and hours for some people that had been there for years. Everyone we spoke with said there was almost no chance of new hires this year, which could bring risks when things return to normal in 2021. Due to the high level of attrition in the industry, the supply chain relies on new seasonal hires, a percentage of whom return the next season.
They also all agree it's a crapshoot: things could change in any number of unexpected directions. At any time they could be told to close or be allowed to increase their seating.
When asked how the extra money employees are getting ($600 in extra unemployment) was affecting the process of returning and hiring, there seems to be a split. Seasonal restaurants look at unemployment as part of the full time returning employees’ compensation. The employees work like mad for 6 to 8 months and then collect for the remainder of the year, with many returning year after year. One manager said that everyone he has spoken with “just wants to get back to work”. While another stated that most staff were only willing to take a few shifts so as to maintain their unemployment status. Staff are telling the restaurants that they are nervous about the possibility of coming back with little chance of making the money they are accustomed to.
At a national level, this is reflected. As David Barr, a franchisee multiple fast-food restaurants in seasonal areas said:
“Our biggest competitor for talent is no longer the fast food [restaurant] or other shops across the street, it’s the unemployment bureau. With the $600 additional unemployment, we find that it’s very difficult to find talent — we hope that in July that will open up.”
Adding to this uncertainty was on how deep the talent pool is, during the pandemic. The owner of a large pub believes: “with so much unemployment and underemployment, we may have a number of people that will be willing or for that matter happy to pick up a gig with no real long term commitment. They need the money while they wait for their full-time jobs to return.”
While another business owner felt it may be more challenging for seasonal:
“They may be able to piecemeal their way through the summer. But they’ll probably not be able to put that nest egg away to get you through the winter when we’re closed. Having lost Memorial day and Mother's day - two of the biggest days of the year for eating out.... It's going to be hard on our people.”
Local seasonal restaurants (non-corporate, anyway) don't have human resource departments, but are uniquely human. They are full of people that are like family that love each other, hate each other, they work long days and nights in extreme conditions. Whether it’s cooks and dishwashers working 120-degree kitchens. 110 Pound waitresses running out of that kitchen with a forty-pound tray loaded with 200 dollars worth of boiled lobsters. Bartenders slinging drinks trying to get as many drinks out as fast they can, while at the same time keeping everyone happy and at the same time not letting anyone drink too much. They all work to make sure that the customers are happy because the happier the customer the bigger the tips. With the pandemic, the volume of customers will be lowered due to distancing, and tips lower, even as stress levels rise amidst uncertainty.
As we were told:: “We don’t really know what’s coming, and we’re used to a certain degree of uncertainty. From staffing, to managing, to the flow of customers, and the timing of the season. But there’s usually a rhythm to the uncertainty. There’s no rhythm this year. And that’s weird.”
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