NH Restaurants Struggle to Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic
If you ask New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association CEO Mike Somers to pinpoint one area of the state where there have been problems with hiring staff he has a one word answer: "everywhere."
Employers in New Hampshire and around the country are having problems hiring help as the summer season fast approaches. The hospitality industry, hoping to rebound after the pandemic kept many people home and away from favorite summer destinations, is having an especially hard time.
"We have thousands of jobs available and we can't find folks to come work. It's kind of a good thing and a bad thing. It means that all those who can work are working but on the flip side you can't fill all the jobs you need to fill," Somers told Seacoast Current.
It's a widespread issue across New Hampshire and not a situation he's encountered in his 12 years as the NHLR's president.
"I know the Seacoast usually has a real big challenge and the Portsmouth area specifically, but we're seeing it in all corners of the state," Somers said. "You name an area where there's a decent amount of restaurants and they're all having a challenge.
Somers said that the opportunities are great this season and the pay is higher than ever as a way to fill their staffing needs through the state's job fairs, their own job board on Facebook. An in-person job fair is scheduled at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Manchester on May 25.
"The jobs are really great paying right now. We're starting dishwashers in the $14-$15 an hour range. Working in the kitchens can be as much as $18-$20 so there are some really great paying jobs and there are thousands of them," Somers said.
Somers thinks there are a number of reasons people are not filling out applications including child care issues and the extended unemployment benefits.
"While it's been extremely important for a lot of folks it's likely sidelined some people from searching for work," Somers said.
While he didn't join the United States Chamber in calling for an end to the extended benefits he is glad that those collecting unemployment will have to show proof they are looking for work. The proof had been suspended by Gov. Chris Sununu during the pandemic but will be reinstated May 23.
"I don't know that we need an outright abolition, but we need a process where you verify that you're still eligible for this or you're not," Somers said.
Evan Mallett, chef and owner of the Black Trumpet restaurant in Portsmouth faces the reality of hiring on a daily basis from a pool of potential workers he says is currently dry. He favors ending the $300 unemployment supplement for the greater good of the survival of the industry.
"I have been in this industry long enough to know that people are going to go where the money is and right now the ability to sit on a couch and play a video game while making money is pretty damn appealing," Mallett said. "I don't know how many of those people are going to get sick of it before that benefit runs out."
Mallett theorizes that the labor pool may have dried up because they put their time in quarantine to good use and pursued an interest or take a dream off hold.
"This last year has created for many of them the impetus that they've been waiting for to kick them in the butt and say 'there's never been a time like right now to go back to school and get that degree. Go into that field you were afraid to do full time,'" Mallett said.
The restaurant industry was hit hard by the pandemic thanks to forced closures and dining restrictions but Mallett said Seacoast chefs/owners have kept in touch via a group text to discuss common issues and use the power of collaboration.
"It's been a really good sort of outlet for many of us but also an educational forum. I very much appreciate that we have the kind of chef community that puts the community ahead of the individual. We all want to survive as individual restaurants and we're all doing what we can," Mallett said.
"But I think the bigger picture is that what's more important is that we have a remarkable community of chefs, restaurants and food providers that has worked together for a really long time to ensure that we have the power of collaboration and the ability to be resilient," Mallett said.