Top 10 of 2021: Dearth of workers leaves some businesses scrambling

ADDISON COUNTY RESTAURANTS had to pare back operating hours in light of an ongoing shortage of workers, made worse by the return of summer workers to schools and colleges. Cubber’s Restaurant in Bristol posted this sign in an attempt to woo job applicants. Independent photo/John Flowers

Addison County businesses started waking up from their collective, COVID-induced slumber in early 2021, when state and federal authorities began to lift pandemic restrictions. But those same businesses encountered another problem: a shortage of workers.

The reasons for the shortage were varied. Some folks — particularly older individuals with pre-existing medical conditions — were reluctant to return to their jobs out of fear of contracting COVID-19. Some younger people did the math and realized they could bring in more money through unemployment and supplemental COVID benefits than through a $14-$18 hourly wage. Others placed a premium on staying home in order to care for their children, particularly since daycare was often hard to find.

Whatever the reasons, employers — particularly in the hospitality and food service industries — were desperate for workers to fill shifts. Some businesses couldn’t find enough employees to reopen; others opened with limited hours. Still others transitioned to takeout only.

Matt and Caroline Corrente in 2019 had opened Haymaker Bun Co. and The Arcadian Restaurant in the former home of The Lobby Restaurant at 7 Bakery Lane in Middlebury. Both enterprises quickly gained a loyal following. But the dearth of workers forced the Correntes to make some tough decisions about the Arcadian — first limiting hours, then having to close the budding restaurant on Sept. 24 (though Haymaker continues to thrive).

“It’s the long-term effects of having the crew eroded a little bit at a time, with no reinforcements available,” Matt Corrente said at the time. “It’s been like building a house of cards in a hurricane.”

Jim Rubright opened Middlebury Bagel & Deli 42 years ago, and he’d never seen the local workforce as depleted as it was in 2021. The lack of applicants forced the business to suspend operations Wednesdays and Sundays.

Fire & Ice Restaurant made the difficult decision to suspend Saturday lunch service, due to a lack of support staff. And that was after raising hourly wages as an inducement, something several businesses did to attract workers.

Mark and Donna Perrin saw the dwindling workforce trend appear in early 2020, figured the pattern would continue long-term, and decided to close their Green Peppers Restaurant dining room at 10 Washington St. in Middlebury to become a strictly takeout operation.

It turned out to be a good move, according to Mark Perrin, who’s been able to pare his payroll while keeping a lean, motivated staff turning out the restaurant’s popular pizzas, pastas, salads and appetizers. He had no plans to reopen the dining room and believes Green Peppers is well-positioned to survive any future COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that might come along.

Meanwhile, Cubber’s Restaurant in Bristol posted a sign on its window reading, “Help wanted — apply within. Lots of $$$.”

Bristol Cliffs Café also had a “help wanted” sign on its door.

In Vergennes, 3 Squares Café closed on Mondays and Tuesdays “until further notice.” Café owner Matt Birong said he couldn’t hire enough staff to keep the sit-down restaurant open those two days. But he got permission from the Vergennes City Council to park a food truck adjacent to the city green, which allowed 3 Squares to serve food — with fewer workers — on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Restaurants able to return to “normal” did brisk business. The Giving Fridge — a new nonprofit started by Bethanie Farrell — helped keep some eateries busy by hiring them to make takeout meals for those in need.

And job openings were seemingly plentiful beyond just food service. Classified ad sections and websites trumpeted opportunities. Several employers — including Middlebury College and Porter Medical Center — offered sign-on bonuses for successful applicants who agreed to stick around.

Economic observers speculated that the workforce would ramp up upon the expiration of special COVID benefits at the end of the summer. But many of the “help wanted” signs remain up.

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