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Bottom Line: Labor shortage squeezes Upper Valley general stores

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 10/23/2021 9:41:14 PM
Modified: 10/23/2021 9:41:15 PM

The Plainfield General Store will be closed on Sundays starting next month. The Aldrich General Store in North Haverhill has been closed on Sundays since August. Dan & Whit’s in Norwich is down to one cashier lane. Wing’s Market in Fairlee is closing an hour earlier on Friday and Saturday nights. Leo’s One-Stop in Claremont had to shut early at 3 p.m. last Monday. Baker’s General Store in Post Mills closed earlier than normal several nights the week before last.

Local general stores, a daily stop for people living in small towns around the Upper Valley in need of a grab-and-go breakfast or a six-pack of beer, are curtailing hours or closing for an entire day because they can’t find enough employees.

“We went from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays, which were the usual hours, to 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and in November we will be closed on Sunday altogether,” Elaine Arbour said, who with her husband, Kurt Gergler, bought the Plainfield General Store in 2019.

To staff the store for 12 hours on Sunday, Arbour needs five workers, but she has been short two. Her husband, a school psychologist, was working 40 hours a week at the store but no longer can now that school is in session. She said the store requires 10 to 13 employees to staff all the shifts.

“We do a pretty good breakfast service on Sunday or have people coming in for lunch and fuel on their way home. It certainly is a very viable day,” Arbour said. “Not the busiest day, but it’s worth it to be open and we’d like to be open.”

Students, once a reliable pool of part-time workers, have disappeared during the pandemic, according to Arbour.

“It has shifted in the 2½ years since owning the store,” she said. “It started out where it was a mix of high school and college students as well as some adults and now it is primarily adults who live in the area.”

Cameron Gregory, who acquired his late uncle Mike Pomeroy’s Baker’s General Store in Post Mills and Village Store in Thetford Center in 2020, said he had to close the Post Mills store early several days and all of Sunday the week before last, when he didn’t have anyone to cover an employee who fell sick and another who had to report for National Guard duty.

Gregory, who pays a starting wage of $12 per hour (minimum wage in Vermont is $11.75 per hour and scheduled to rise to $12.55 per hour on Jan. 1), said he’s having a hard time hiring because he is can’t match what convenience store chains pay, which can reach $15 an hour and even more.

“The big chains are offering higher wages, incentives and benefits that we can’t,” Gregory said, adding that hiring someone temporary for a few hours a week to help out “is near impossible.”

Before the pandemic, Gregory said he could rely on retirees who wanted to pick up some extra money, but that’s no longer the case.

“I think with COVID a lot of the older population retired, which is leaving gaps,” he said.

At the Aldrich General Store in North Haverhill, owner Victor Dube said he began closing Sunday in August because “our people were overworked and we needed to give them a rest.”

He is short five workers and starts them at $12 an hour but Dube said many people expect more.

“I’ve been in this business for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dube said, who explained that as a small, family-run store he can’t afford to pay the $16 per hour for unskilled workers that several national chain stores along Route 12A in West Lebanon are now advertising.

“We can only go so far without going out of business,” he said.

Dan & Whit’s in Norwich has long been a place where high school students get their first part-time job, but owner Dan Fraser said he’s had such difficulty in hiring that he even had a hard time keeping the popular ice cream window open this summer.

“Quite often we are having to close the deli counter at 3 p.m. three or four days a week because we don’t have anyone,” said Fraser, noting that he usually preferred to have two check-out lanes open but now only has one.

Fraser believes that many high school students, after not being able to go to school because of the pandemic, are now trying to reconnect with friends, sports and activities in the time they previously would have used for a part-time job.

“They are focusing on the things they missed the past year and a half — school, sports, having pizza and hanging out with friends,” Fraser said. But that’s having an impact at the store.

Vermont law requires alcohol deliveries to be paid by check upon delivery but Fraser recounted that one day recently he “had 20 people in line” at the checkout counter and no one to cover him at the store so he could break away to pay for the delivery.

“The delivery guy said he was sorry but his hands were tied,” Fraser said. The driver drove away with beer.

The Plainfield General Store’s Arbour doesn’t know why it is so difficult to hire people, although she can’t help but notice the problem coincided with the pandemic.

“I have no idea. There were workers before COVID happened. And now they’re not. I don’t know where they are,” Arbour said. “But we would love to meet some.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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