Restaurants and businesses locally and across the nation are cutting the hours that they are open to the public as they struggle to hire workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is the wave of the future,” said Alison Hardey, owner of Jeannine’s Restaurant & Bakery. “I don’t see it changing.”
Jeannine’s in Goleta recently shortened the number of days it is open during the week from six to five — Wednesday through Sunday.
“We just decided to diminish our hours,” Hardey said. “It’s too costly to be open when you don’t have enough staff.”
According to the national Independent Restaurant Coalition, the nation added 108,000 jobs in January, but restaurant and bar employment is still down 984,700 from pre-pandemic levels.
Many of the restaurants and bars are having trouble hiring even though leisure and hospitality wages have increased by about 13% since the pandemic began, according to the coalition.
Many factors are at play, according to restaurant industry officials. Locally, the move to online school at UCSB and Santa Barbara City College lessened the pool of employees such as college students who typically might work service jobs. Other employees just aren’t comfortable going back to work, particularly amid the rapid Omicron variant rise that took hold in December and January. Other potential employees contracted the virus and were in quarantine. Others might be reluctant to go back into service jobs, knowing that a potential restaurant shutdown could occur and force them into disarray again.
Kristen Miller, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce, said challenges related to hiring is a top of conversation daily with her members.
“The customers are coming back at a pace that we are willing to absorb, but I have several business that cannot open because they don’t have staff,” Miller said. “It’s a huge issue.”
Miller said a variety of things are driving the hiring challenges.
“It’s people just making major life changes because life changed so dramatically for everyone,” Miller said.
Some older members of the workforce decided to stop working or retire. Other employees have found jobs where they can work remotely. There is still some uncertainty around child care, so some parents are staying home to take care of their children, according to Miller. Many of the after-school activities are still limited, she said, which makes it more difficult for parents to work restaurant or retail jobs when they have to pick up kids and tend to them in the late afternoon.
“What about all the after-school activities that you used to be able to count on?” Miller said. “Some of them are back on, some of them are not. That uncertainty is just taking a toll.”
Miller said a lot of restaurants are closing on Mondays and Tuesdays.
She said there could be a change in early March, as the Omicron numbers drop and everyone’s confidence grows.
Still, like Hardey said, the industry has changed.
“A lot of people have left the workforce and may not be coming back,” Miller said.
Laura Knight, owner of Pascucci Restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara, said she’s mostly been able to maintain her hours but that she did see an impact in January from a slowdown in customers.
“We’ve had a slowdown since the first of the year,” Knight said. “January always slows down some, but the combination of the new variant of COVID caused people to be concerned about going out, combined with many, many people getting COVID. Although it was not as severe as it was contagious, folks were leery of going out to public places.”
She said she’s been able to maintain most of her employees since the pandemic began.
“Weekends are still busy, but we’re closing a little earlier during the week for dinner, and lunches have been sluggish since the beginning of January,” Knight said. “My employees are all being patient. They all have friends in the industry and know that other businesses are slow as well.”
Hardey said restaurant margins aren’t large to begin with, and with a slowdown in customers, rising costs of supplies such as sugar and other items, it just makes sense to close an extra day. Both the Goleta Jeannine’s and the upper State Street Jeannine’s are open five days a week, while the Montecito and the Cabrillo Boulevard locations are open every day.
Restaurants, Hardey said, are going to be more impacted by COVID-19 because they are a front-facing business and front-of-house employees are necessary.
“It’s an intimate business,” she said. “You have to come into work. We’re going to be up against it.”
“For the first time in years,” he said, “I found myself washing dishes.”