Birong sees statewide workforce shortage


A major barrier to retaining staff has been the cost of housing, especially at what are considered reasonable wages, in the teens- to 20-dollars-an-hour. It’s hard to live on that in many areas in the state.
— Matt Birong

VERGENNES — Matt Birong, owner of the Three Squares Café in Vergennes and a state representative, has been in contact regularly with statewide hospitality and restaurant groups, chambers of commerce, and other trade organizations outside of hospitality. When asking how everyone is doing with staffing shortages, he has heard the same message time and again.
“This is an industry-wide problem across the country,” said Birong, a Vergennes Democrat. “Everyone needs help right now, and they’re desperately trying to find it. People are putting up advertisements and receiving little to no interest.”
Birong said his service model at Three Squares Café creates less at-the-table interpersonal contact, and he was closed less time than many other restaurants, and therefore the lion’s share of his staff has returned.
But major factors have hamstrung many other restaurants, he noted.
Birong said early on there was “complacency” among 20- and 30-year-olds about COVID-19. But now that age group, a major contributor to the hospitality workforce, has become more aware of the risk of infection.
“That’s creating more trepidation, especially among food service and dining (workers). We are literally the only ones allowed to have unmasked clientele,” Birong said. “So of course that gives people some reservations about coming back into the workplace.”
The increasing levels of vaccinations will in part help solve that problem, but there are others.
The biggest is that many people have shifted out of the industry. Former servers and bartenders have studied up for and obtained their real-estate licenses, for example, or found other careers they could successfully pursue remotely from home, he said.
“I think what we’ve also seen, probably in our late-20s, 30s, and early-40s demographic, is just a wholesale exit of our industry, because they had time to shift their focus to a different occupation,” Birong said.
That means the hospitality sector labor shortage will not solve itself easily or quickly, according to Birong, who nonetheless expects some will return when they are vaccinated or realize, for example, the real estate market has cooled off.
In the meantime, restaurant wages are also starting to rise.
“Restaurants are starting to outbid each other for staff, and in some instances cannibalizing staff from neighboring restaurants,” Birong said.
Seasonal lodging and hospitality businesses, especially those that host weddings and other special events, might be making bets they will have difficulty cashing in on, Birong said. They have to book events now and hope they can find workers to staff them this summer.
“They’re making commitments their staff can’t fulfill in some situations,” he said. “They’re just booking stuff because their revenues were such a loss last year, and they need to get back on their feet this year. They need the bodies, and they can’t find the bodies, and they’re really starting to get stressed out.”

In his work on the Vermont House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs, Birong has seen evidence that the lack of housing is another stumbling block for the hospitality sector. Housing costs for employees who might want to relocate here are going up, and already scarce affordable apartments and homes are now even more scarce.
“We’ve never had a robust stock of housing where a couple of 20-somethings could rent a quality two-bedroom, one-bath (apartment) and root themselves into a community,” Birong said. “A major barrier to retaining staff has been the cost of housing, especially at what are considered reasonable wages, in the teens- to 20-dollars-an-hour. It’s hard to live on that in many areas in the state.”
Now, with the perception that many so-called COVID refugees are coming to Vermont, the problem is worse than ever: The demand they are creating is making things worse.
Birong noted one of his Vergennes peers felt fortunate to be able to recently recruit an out-of-state chef.
“They were so lucky to find this guy a place to live, because that’s the problem,” Birong said. “People have nibbles and desires from people to work from out of state. We just can’t find them a place to live. So here’s another major roadblock to the problem.
“We just don’t have the inventory.”

Builders are having trouble finding workers, too.
And wages and costs of materials are rising in that sector — Birong said he and his wife chose to postpone a planned renovation and addition to their home because it became too expensive, for example.
“People on the back end are having to look at the math because of what’s happening with labor within trades and also material costs,” he said.
“People are skittish about going back to work there, too,” Birong said.
Retail shop owners are in a different bind. Independent owners are working long hours.
“If they’re part of a national chain, they can operate at a loss for a while, so you can bring back people at a higher level (of pay), maybe offer some enhanced benefits,” Birong said. “But, especially for independents who don’t have that robust financial safety net, they’re being put in a very precarious situation. How do they operate in a way so they have consistency for their customers and public, but also be financially realistic with the means of their business?”
Birong has talked to colleagues in the Legislature and sources in the Department of Labor, but there’s been nothing concrete proposed yet to deal with the labor shortage.
“There have been conversations bouncing around with the Department of Labor about trying to do different recruitment initiatives, things like that. But I haven’t seen anything hard on paper,” Birong said. “Nothing’s been rolled out yet.”
There’s also another factor facing all sectors.
“With the unknowns of how school is going to operate, and with the serious lack of — let’s call it a crisis in child care — and also a lot of unknowns about what summer recreation programs for kids and camps are going to look like, they don’t have confidence to go back into the workplace full-time.” Birong said. “Because they don’t know what they’re going to be able to do with their children.”

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