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Upper Valley restaurants still struggling to hire adequate staff

  • Christine Richardson, of Canaan, left, and Jennifer Clement, of Lebanon, right, learn to use the ordering software from Latham House Tavern Manager Katie Shreve, of Corinth, second from left, on their first day on the job as owner Tami Dowd, second from right, takes a phone call in Lyme, N.H., on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. It was the tavern’s first time opening after suffering staffing issues since late July. “We usually do a four day training, but we’re kind of squishing everything together because of demand,” said Shreve, who came to the tavern as server after losing her job as an elementary school behavior coach early in the pandemic. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

  • On the Latham House Tavern’s first day opening since July, Executive Chef Duncan Dowd, right, demonstrates the plating of dishes on the restaurant’s menu to new line cook Dawn Phelps, of Thetford, left, on her first day on the job in Lyme, N.H., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. “It’s nice taking a break from a leadership role,” said Phelps who is food service director at Thetford Academy and came to the tavern for a second job. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At the close of her first hour on the job with very little restaurant experience, Christine Richardson finishes setting tables at the Latham House Tavern in Lyme, N.H., on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, just before the doors were opened to customers for the first time since July. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 9/26/2022 8:54:16 PM
Modified: 9/26/2022 8:54:20 PM

LYME — Dire labor shortages are being felt across the country and the situation is no different in the Upper Valley.

Tami Dowd, owner of Dowd’s Inn and Latham Tavern in Lyme, is down to roughly 60 employees, a third of what her staff was last year, making it nearly impossible to run her family inn, restaurant, and banquet hall. The shortage has affected the number of services she is able to offer.

“We’ve had to close the restaurant, and then we’ve pulled the people from the restaurant to run the banquets,” she said at the end of August. “I mean that’s how severe this is. With people not working, it’s limiting what we can do with the business.”

Many businesses, like the Salt hill Pub locations in Lebanon and West Lebanon and the Nest in Hanover, have resorted to limiting their menus and closing for an extra day. The Salt Hill Pub in West Lebanon and Blue Sparrow Cafe in Norwich, a sister location to the Nest, were forced to close temporarily or permanently depending on how long the shortage lasts. Although it’s easy for customers to get frustrated with long lines and slow service, there is often more going on than meets the eye.

“A lot of people don’t understand the pressure,” Hannah McMinn, who has been a manager at the Nest almost since its inception four years ago, said in mid-August. “We have to try to get the best quality to our customers, in the limited amount of time with a little amount of help. It’s hard to juggle everything, and I think people don’t really know what goes on behind closed doors.”

COVID-19 may seem like the obvious cause of this shortage, but a labor shortage has been brewing across the country for years now. Some industries such as hospitality have had a hard time staffing even before the pandemic. Between a drop in the number of people entering trade and manufacturing jobs, a shrinking U.S. population and birth rate, and a declining level of immigration, the labor shortage had been on the horizon for a while.

“The U.S. has relied heavily on immigration to ‘backfill’ our population and to fill many basic jobs such as in construction, agriculture, hospitality and other sectors,” Tracy Hutchins, president of the Upper Valley Business Alliance, said. “However, immigration into the U.S. has been very low since 2016 and even prior.”

Nevertheless, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Not only did it encourage older, at-risk workers to take early retirement, but it also continues to prevent some working parents — who no longer have access to reliable child care — from returning to work. Some business owners and consumers alike believe workers aren’t returning due to the federal funds like unemployment being provided in response to COVID-19. These sentiments may have been correct in 2020 but many federal relief programs set up in response to COVID-19 have ended by now, Hutchins said.

Although booming business is never a bad thing, it is not the kind of support that local businesses currently need.

“It’s not that we’re slow or that we need extra funding. It’s that we need help,” McMinn said. “We need bodies. So ask your niece or your nephews, if you have someone that can do a part-time shift here or there, filling in those holes, helping would be getting your hands a little dirty.”

Unfortunately, when positions remain unfilled, it’s often the managers and owners who end up shouldering the burden. All of the businesses interviewed for this story expressed a great deal of appreciation for the staff they do have, and emphasized the many ways they have attempted to keep or attract staff.

Josh Tuohy, co-owner of the Salt hill Pubs, said the business had increased wages by roughly 30%, but was still forced to close its West Lebanon location in late July. It has not yet reopened. Meanwhile, Dowd, in Lyme, has had to resort to offering to pay for Uber rides for Dartmouth College students who do not have transportation.

Even more importantly, the managers and owners stressed how crucial it is to avoid overworking the employees they do have.

“Everybody is picking up extra, and we’re being very cautious about how much they are (picking up) because we don’t want the good people who are dedicated to our family and our business to get burnt out,” Dowd said.

Hutchins at the UVBA urged community members to have patience with restaurants and their employees right now.

“It’s important for the community to understand that short staffing is just the norm now and to be understanding,” Hutchins said. “Thanks to Amazon and online retail, we have all come to expect service at a moment’s notice. But the reality is that small businesses and even larger businesses can’t keep up.”

As far as solutions, Hutchins cited a need to attract workers to the area with enticements such as affordable housing and more competitive wages.

Looking ahead, there is not much optimism among business owners that things will get better soon, especially now that high schoolers and Dartmouth students have resumed classes.

Even if new people apply, the desperation of the situation leaves little room for introduction to the job.

“Retraining takes time, and it gets busier when school starts,” McMinn said. “So you’re going to be training amongst the chaos and hopefully, that won’t scare people away.”


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