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Longmont restaurants draw from dwindling labor pool

Restaurants across the country are struggling to find staff

Restaurants across the country are struggling to find staff, even as pandemic restrictions begin to ease. Longmont hasn’t been able to avoid the problem, though some restaurants find staffing easier than others.

The unemployment rate for Colorado continues to hover around 6.4%, almost a half percent higher than the national unemployment rate of 6%. According to data provided by the Colorado Restaurant Association, or CRA, Colorado gained 6,600 jobs total from February to March 2021 but the state’s leisure and hospitality sector lost 1,100 jobs in the same timeframe. Leisure and hospitality has lost a total of 61,900 jobs since March 2020. 

“There is hope as warmer weather approaches and patio season begins, allowing additional capacity at restaurants and the need for more workers,” said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the CRA.

While the federal government is doing what it can to lend financial support with the recent Restaurant Revitalization Fund packaged with the American Rescue Plan Act, it doesn’t address issues in the labor pool. Previous relief funds, like the Payroll Protection Program,  proved instrumental in retaining staff during the pandemic but don’t necessarily open up the budget for increased hiring.

“We’re finding for whatever reason that we get a lot of applicants, but considering how many people were probably laid off from the service industry, we’re surprised how few people with solid experience are coming through,” said Jean Ditslear, owner of 300 Suns Brewing. “I wonder if it’s people still extending their unemployment benefits, or just leary of getting back into the service industry. The few we’ve hired have been amazing, but I’m surprised the qualified pool isn’t bigger.”

James Ross, owner of Rosalee’s Pizzeria, expressed similar concerns as they’ve struggled to fill positions. Ross noted that if they do get applicants, they aren’t always the most reliable or qualified. 

“I don’t want to make assumptions on where people are at during the pandemic, but a lot of applicants never show up for interviews,” Ross said. “Still, before this I’d never posted a job listing to Craigslist and had zero responses.”

Rosalee’s is currently only open for takeout orders, waiting until their staff has been fully vaccinated before returning to dine-in service. Ross remains hopefully optimistic though, as they’ve weathered the storm this far. 

“The PPP allowed us to keep on almost all of our crew, and we’re grateful for that. They’re like family to us,” Ross said.

The culture of a restaurant can have a dramatic impact on staff retention, providing offset benefits to balance out long hours serving guests or working in hot kitchens. That can work to keep current staff happier and healthier, while also enticing new hires. This is evidenced in restaurants like Rosalee’s, which closes for an extended period during the summer and again in the winter to guarantee staff time off. 

Professional kitchens are notorious for high-stress, physically intense environments with few breaks which can lead to issues with substance abuse and alcoholism, a subject documented in news articles like this one from Vice in 2016 or the Sunrise House Treatment Center, and books, including Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography Kitchen Confidential. A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Services Administration from 2015 cites 16.9% of restaurant and hospitality workers facing some sort of substance abuse disorder.

A culture of care and value can be a difficult thing to cultivate within the industry. Chef T. Hanson worked in the restaurant industry for 30 years, six of which were in Boulder County. 

“Prior to COVID, I was very focused on my career and I never saw myself doing anything else,” Hanson said. “I love the rush of a busy restaurant and I was never happier than when a great team is dancing together to give the guest an amazing experience.”

Hanson worked in a new executive chef position for six months when the pandemic lockdowns started. The rest of the employees were put on furlough and Hanson was kept on as the sole employee. While the restaurant was a fine-dining concept and didn’t see a lot of takeout orders, Hanson said that working all day, every day began to take its toll.

“I injured my right arm at the restaurant and it was really bad. I was doing too much. So when the next shut down came, I was put on worker’s (compensation),” Hanson said. “It felt like I didn’t get any care or support from the owners. No one cared if I caught COVID, I was expected to do whatever needed to be done no matter my health or needs.”

Hanson spoke about the frustration with the industry as whole, citing a lack of support from guests and owners alike. A lack of work-life balance in restaurant culture, a lack of appreciation from the general public, even issues surrounding restaurant workers making a fair wage were issues workers like Hanson faced before the novel coronavirus spread across the globe.

“It’s always been this way in our industry, but this time I could die and no one cared. I’m almost 50, it’s hard work. I just don’t feel like I can do it anymore. COVID showed us all that tomorrow is not promised, and I can’t give my life to an industry that doesn’t give me time to enjoy my life,” Hanson said.

Even restaurants that have worked to promote a healthy culture are struggling to hire. Alishia Moore, the director of operations for The Roost, said they were still trying to fill at least a dozen positions in order to be ready for patio season and warmer weather.

The Roost retained nearly all of the employees during the lockdowns in 2020. Moore said only a handful of employees chose to move on, mostly to positions outside the restaurant industry. Since the restaurant opened, Moore has worked with the owners, Sean and Rebecca Gafner to provide a healthier culture for their staff.

“I think it’s important that we stay healthy in an industry that is notorious for being the opposite of that. We want to add value and benefits for our employees,” Moore said.

The Roost has added perks like yoga classes, chiropractic appointments and passes to Longmont Climbing Collective in addition to raising wages and pooling tips throughout the restaurant. 

“Our turnover is probably a lot lower than it would be, because we want to promote this culture and caliber in our restaurant,” Moore said.

Without the labor pool to draw from, Moore recognized the difficulties of promoting a work-life balance.

“We want to hire people and fill these positions so that we aren’t overworking our people, so that they can take time off,” she said.

Longs Peak Pub, part of the Mountain Sun restaurant family is another mainstay in Boulder County’s restaurant scene. The company has offered competitive wages and health insurance, along with tip pooling and a shared work ethic since owner Kevin Daly founded the first restaurant.

“We go out of our way to get employees health insurance, meals every shift. I think it was easier to retain our staff during the lockdowns because of that,” said Longs Peak manager Scott Donahue.

“Kevin, the owner, took care of our healthcare during the lockdowns,” said Longs Peak manager John Houston. “There were these things he did to make sure the staff were cared for, so they would be here when we could open up.”

Donahue and Houston said they had just finished staffing up, at least to meet the allowances of current COVID phase restrictions for the county. 

“It might have been easier because of our restaurant’s reputation with our staff, but it still took longer than usual to get staffed up,” Donahue said.

The CRA said  more restaurants are adopting benefits like healthcare, mental health resources, increased wages and tip pooling to strengthen their staff. Some restaurants, like the Roost, are offering referral bonuses to staff that bring in a new hire.

“We’re hearing from operators across the state that they are optimistic and investing in significant changes to rebuild restaurants as safe, equitable and gratifying spaces for guests and workers alike,” Riggs said.

Hanson said for the moment, they are looking for work adjacent to the industry with a vendor or as a consultant.

“What I know is I will only be taking jobs that make my life work, not the other way around anymore. It would take a major overhaul of our industry for me to go back,” Hanson said.