From liquor stores to landscapers, East End businesses are scrambling to staff up for the summer as an increase in job opportunities, beefed-up unemployment benefits, limited seasonal work visas, and the high cost of living are making it hard to find employees.
"This is the first time we've had to advertise job openings in years," said Helene Milne of the Surfside Inn in Montauk. The hotel was closed last summer because of the pandemic, and is now trying to get a new team in place. "We're lucky our chefs are coming back, but we need waitstaff," she said. Hiring has been difficult because of the $300 per week increase in unemployment benefits the state has offered to those who lost work due to the pandemic.
"Some people don't want to come off unemployment," she said. And the limit on the federal H-2B seasonal work visas that allow employers to hire foreigners for nonagricultural jobs has also been a hindrance. She had planned to hire two people from Russia, she said, but because they had not yet been granted visas, they weren't able to find living accommodations. "Landlords didn't want to take a deposit without that guarantee."
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services issued 33,000 H-2B visas by lottery in February, and announced last month that it plans to issue 22,000 more in the coming weeks.
At Charlie and Sons Landscapes in Amagansett, business has been brisk thanks to the boom in the real estate market. "Whenever somebody either sells or buys, that's when we get called in," said Nikki Seelbach. "They either want to fix something for the sale, or they just bought it and they want to change something."
In previous years, the firm had hired five to eight people through the visa program, she said. "A lot of our guys encourage relatives to get a visa, because it's a little easier if you know someone who works here, and they like working together and commuting together," she said. "And once you get them, they're allowed to come back, so it's a really beautiful system when it's working." This year, however, "we didn't win the lottery," so the hiring search goes on. "The labor force has become very diluted because everyone's so busy," said Ms. Seelbach. "Construction is going crazy, and for us, it's hard to compete with companies that employ people year round. If someone gets a job in construction, they don't want to leave it, because we only employ them for nine or 10 months out of the year."
"I'm running out of recruiting options that work," said John McGovern, the owner of East Hampton Wines and Liquors on Springs-Fireplace Road. Although he had previously had luck finding employees via the Bonac Work Force Facebook page, this year he has had to engage the help of two Southampton employment agencies. "We've had really good people, but they get tempted by seasonal jobs where they can make more per hour," he said. "What we have to offer is year-round employment." Because of the cost of housing, he said, the challenge is finding someone who can work a retail job, and still afford to live here. "We're community-based, and we're looking for someone who has a stable living situation, and is not the primary breadwinner in the family," he said. Prospective candidates can apply by calling the store between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Barbara Odak, the owner of Amagansett Beach and Bicycle, also cited the cost of housing as a cause of the labor shortage. Although she had found employees for the summer after running a newspaper ad, acquaintances who work in the trades haven't been as fortunate, she said. "Plumbers and electricians can't get workers," she said.
The influx of people who have moved to the East End during the pandemic has made the search for retail employees "worse than usual," said Gwen Waddington, who, along with her mother, Nada Barry, owns the Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor. "I can't compete with what people are paying babysitters," she said. Although the East End population has increased over the last year, the new arrivals are not people looking for retail jobs, she said, and "I can't run my mom-and-pop shop paying $25 per hour."