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Businesses Across Monterey Bay Suffer "Unprecedented" Worker Shortage

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Suzanne Saunders
No staff, no business. Hundreds of restaurants and shops cut their hours and days of operation because they can’t find enough people to work.

Businesses across the Monterey Bay are suffering a critical shortage of workers in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hospitality industry normally employs 26,000 people on the peninsula. But now, restaurants, hotels and retail shops are struggling to operate, often lacking a third of their pre-pandemic workforce.

The scarcity of staff has forced many establishments to reduce their hours of operation, or even shut down for part of the week. After a grueling 15 months of government mandated closures and restricted public access, owners who were hoping to recoup some of their pandemic losses now find themselves unable to operate at full capacity during peak tourist season.

The Pebble Beach Company began its world class Concours d’Elegance car show on Aug. 15 with more than 200 unfilled positions. The resort has held job fairs every two weeks since March, but current employees say few applicants show up.

At the bustling Baja Cantina along Carmel Valley Road, owner Pat Phinny calls today’s worker shortage “unprecedented.” He’s worked in the restaurant business for 45 years, and said he’s never seen a worker shortage like this.

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Suzanne Saunders
45 year restaurant veteran Pat Phinny calls the depth of today’s worker shortage “unprecedented”

To compensate for the lack of workers, he and his wife help their employees wash dishes, prep food and bus tables — whatever is necessary to keep the restaurant open. Phinny said he advertises on Craigslist and other platforms, but is still short almost a third of his normal staff. He said he’s heard similar stories from other restaurant owners who, despite raising wages and offering all sorts of bonuses and perks, can’t lure enough applicants.

“There are hundreds asking for the same thing — from dishwashers, busboys, waiters, servers, managers, bartenders, and everything in between,” Phinny said.

Janine Chicourrat, chair of the Monterey County Hospitality Association said extended unemployment benefits are a primary reason for the lack of workers. Another factor is the lack of affordable childcare.

“We have a reservationist that works two days a week. She would work five days a week if she could have childcare,” Chicourrat said.

Hector Azpilcueta is the secretary-treasurer for Unite Here Local 483, a union that represents more than 1,400 hotel and restaurant workers between Monterey and Santa Cruz. He said he doubts unemployment benefits are a primary driver of the shortage. Approximately 70-75% of the union’s members have returned to work, most of them to large hotels and various banquet jobs. And he estimates another 10% or more moved out of the area, or left the union for jobs outside of the hospitality industry.

While the remainder might receive unemployment benefits, he said the fear of catching COVID-19 and the lack of childcare are the more likely factors keeping people home.

At Northridge Mall in Salinas, Yvonne Silva, a young mom who was shopping with a friend, echoed Azpilcueta’s claim.

“I'm actually already looking for a job because I got the news that they're going to reduce my benefits,” she said.

The framed “Help Wanted” signs of two dozen merchants and food shops were displayed at the center of the mall. But Silva wants an office job, not anything in restaurants or retail, where she fears she’ll be exposed to the Delta variant. She’s fully vaccinated, but still afraid of getting sick. Her grandparents died from COVID-19 in Mexico.

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Suzanne Saunders
Two dozen “Now Hiring” signs from retailers and restaurants fill both sides of a table at Northridge Mall in Salinas

“They live in a ranch far away from the city and they still got COVID. It makes people scared to look for a job. You don't know what other viruses are going to come along,” she said.

For owners of smaller restaurants and hotels, Chicourrat said this is an especially tough time. Many small operators can no longer afford to run their shops or bistros seven days a week, forcing them to turn away business they desperately need.

“Think of it, all the small businesses, there's tons of small little restaurants,” she said. “A lot of them have gone to five days (a week).”

Chicourrat knows the terrain well. She owns two downtown Monterey restaurants and manages Portola Hotel and Spa, next to the Monterey Convention Center. Today, Portola Hotel’s employee count is just over 200, far lower than its staff of 379 before the pandemic.

Portola Hotel’s restaurant is now closed two days a week, and visitors are no longer offered daily maid service. Other hoteliers are taking a different approach, leaving some hotel rooms vacant and raising rates on the others.

Hospitality Association members told Chicourrat they’re getting cancellations again due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant and the return of mask mandates in California. The state’s most recent jobless claims rose from the previous month, countering the national trend downward.

Nationwide, the federal government’s supplemental unemployment benefits are due to expire during the first week of September. Many retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs hope the change will encourage more applicants to come their way.

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