Good Help Is Harder to Find

Durell Godfrey

Andrea Anthony is a co-owner and hands-on manager of the Lobster Roll, one of the most iconic eateries on Long Island. But neither the restaurant’s 53-year tradition nor acclaim for the food protects her and her partners from having the same staffing problems that neighboring businesses continue to have, even at this late date in the season. 

Employment ads about job openings remain plentiful heading into August. The reasons are myriad, but the bottom line for business owners big and small is the same.

“We’re always scrambling for staff and it makes it really, really tough to do business,” Ms. Anthony said in a telephone interview this weekend. “It’s pretty much known if you don’t get your staff in place the week of July 4th you’re in real trouble. We’ve got to be set by then and ready to go. But every year it gets harder and harder to find people and then keep them. It’s very frustrating.”

“This year we had staff. But then some people always don’t work out. And what you find quite often is most people that apply now were unfortunately other people’s problems. They’re available because they were let go somewhere else, or got to this area because of some other circumstance — if you can find them at all.”

Ms. Anthony said her restaurant has relied for generations on local help to get through the season, not overseas workers. But she and friends sometimes commiserate about encountering the same litany of hurdles to finding staff.

Housing is so expensive some workers simply can’t afford it.

Tighter rental laws that prohibit group shares are another factor.

Traffic is so bottlenecked some workers find the commute is too costly or difficult. They often quit or don’t apply for jobs at all. 

Ms. Anthony said a seasonal place like the Lobster Roll also finds it hard to compete with corporate-owned outfits with bigger resources like Gurney’s, the Montauk resort and spa that offers housing to some employees. She also finds it hard to hear what workers sometimes go through when other businesses rent motel rooms or cabins to house them.

“These poor kids come out and I know of some places where they work — I won’t mention any names — where they put three people in a motel room,” Ms. Anthony says. “The conditions aren’t good. But the kids do it because they want the job.”

Even Gurney’s as of Monday had 21 job openings advertised and posted on its website for everything from drivers to bell captains to a sommelier. A member of the human resources office there said Monday that response to ads has been slow and the resort’s staff housing is already filled.

At Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor, the story is similar. The hotel and restaurant is advertising openings for 14 different types of jobs — including front desk agent, administrative assistant, gift shop clerk, dishwasher, line cook, pool attendant — and inviting applicants to swing by its waterfront location in person if they’d like to talk.

For businesses that rely on overseas workers, getting visas has always been a challenge. But some business people say it has been more difficult for them since the Trump administration came into office. 

“I don’t want to get too political, but you know what it is — it’s the travel ban,” said Michael O’Rourke, who closes his Amagansett Seafood Store on Tuesdays now because he has only two workers helping him. 

“Everybody is stuck for help, every business, every restaurant is at half capacity or worse with help. All the J-1 visas I used to get from Ireland, the Ukraine, I didn’t get them this year. I tried to hire from Bulgaria. I didn’t get any visas. I don’t want to say too much politically. But it’s the truth. These are the times we live in. I may have to close more days if I don’t get more help. I can’t do everything seven days a week by myself. But there just isn’t anybody around.”

Landscape companies, contractors, farm stands, and even community supported agriculture concerns are also feeling the pinch.

Ana Jacobs, who helps run the Sun Country landscaping company with her husband, said they have been advertising for two or three more workers. What she has found is that even if housing isn’t the problem and visas aren’t the issue and the traffic can be negotiated, “Some workers seem to think they might have you over a barrel and call and ask right off the bat if you’ll pay them $25 or $30 an hour to start, before they even know anything about the job. Or they do start and find the work too hard and don’t stick it out, because it is hard.”

Ms. Jacobs is a naturalized United States citizen from Costa Rica who says she went through a three-year process to legally emigrate to the U.S. when she was 16. Her husband was born and raised here and they are based in Springs. Ms. Jacobs said she suspects the worker shortage in certain fields is worse this year, too, because some overseas-born laborers are staying out of the work force or even refraining from driving cars right now because stories of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents making local raids and arrests are having a chilling effect.

“I just recently heard about something near the 7-Eleven in Southampton where ICE officials came in and started asking questions and arrested several men who were getting coffee,” Ms. Jacobs said. “ICE claimed that they were looking for a certain individual, but it seems while they’re there, they are asking for papers and grabbing other people too. It certainly creates fear.”

“I mean, I am here legally, I believe that when you come here you have to obey the laws of this country and respect the rules, learn the language, do things the right way,” Ms. Jacobs added. “But I have to admit after hearing the 7-Eleven story, it certainly crossed my mind that something could happen to me. I look Spanish. I never carry my passport with me. If they come and ask me and I can’t prove I’m a citizen right there and then, are they going to arrest me too? I don’t know.”

Even when workers can be found, another common lament is staff complaints that the work is too hard or flummoxing. Ms. Anthony said it is a constant quest at the Lobster Roll to fill non-tipping jobs like prep cooks or dishwashers. She had an employee quit this summer after a month on the job because he thought he should have been promoted by then and refused to settle for an assurance that a promotion could be possible in time.

A local storeowner who asked that her name not be used said she recently asked a young employee to grab a broom and sweep the sidewalk in front of the store. 

She was stunned when the woman told her that she did not know how to sweep.

“So, I said, ‘Come on, I’ll teach you,’ ” the shop owner said.

Ms. Anthony, Mr. O’Rourke, and Ms. Jacobs all independently stressed that they hope local, state, and federal officials can somehow work together to help alleviate obstacles like affordable housing or the visa shortfalls. Perhaps the additional commuter trains the Long Island Rail Road hopes to add by next year between Speonk and Montauk will help traffic congestion.

“This is hurting all of us,” Mr. O’Rourke said.

Ms. Anthony agreed, adding, “It’s getting tougher all the time.”