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A new pandemic pinch: Savannah-area restaurants, hotels facing labor shortage
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The COVID-19 economic slowdown cut Savannah's leisure and hospitality workforce in half. Now, businesses are struggling to fill open positions, leading to closures and limited hours and seating.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Angela Yeo, owner of Le Café Gourmet, tamped down coffee grounds as a worker manned the cash register in the small Parisian-style cafe.

Like many businesses lately, the downtown eatery is stretching to accommodate eager customers while being severely short staffed. Yeo and her husband are working with a skeleton crew of four, which isn’t enough to keep them open for their usual seven days a week — and barely gets them through their opening hours.

As a result, the cafe has announced they’ll be closed on Thursdays as they work to fill staff positions. Yeo said they need at least three more staffers to work comfortably.

“We’re really sad we have to close now because we didn’t during the pandemic,” said Yeo. “It’s not that we don’t want to hire, it’s just that we don’t have people to [hire].”

The same situation is plaguing different businesses across town and all over the U.S., but Savannah and surrounding cities feel it especially hard with tourism as a main economic driver and the service industry as its backbone.

As people are getting out of their lockdown environment, Visit Savannah's Joe Marinelli said, “They look at a place like Savannah as a beautiful city with a lot of outdoor space to walk around and enjoy.”

“When businesses specific to our industry like hotels, restaurants and attractions and so forth struggle to get people to come to work, ultimately, it has a negative impact on the visitor experience,” said Marinelli.

Pre-pandemic numbers show tourism generated a little over $3 billion in visitor spending, according to Visit Savannah’s website. The industry employed 27,500 workers in February 2020 prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, according to Georgia Department of Labor statistics.  

The pandemic and a statewide shutdown resulted in mass layoffs and cut that number to 14,200 workers in April. The industry has gradually built back its workforce since, with the most recent Georgia labor data showing 23,900 Savannah-area residents are employed in the leisure and hospitality sector.

Finding that missing 3,600 workers is proving difficult.

Charles Roberts, an owner of HLC Hotels, which runs six historic Savannah boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts, said he’s never seen so few job applicants.

“When unemployment in Georgia was less than 4%, we had more folks applying for jobs than we do now after the massive layoffs that occurred during the pandemic,” Roberts said.

The unemployment rate for Georgia is 4.8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Savannah area unemployment rate, which includes Chatham, Effingham and Bryan County, is at 4.5%.

Roberts said they’ve had to cross-train employees and juggle workers between properties to effectively run the business.

'An unintended consequence'

A number of reasons explain why people may be reluctant to return to work as the economy reopens, sector leaders say.

The risk of catching COVID-19 remains real and the effects of a pandemic that have kept parents and caretakers at home still lingers. But some also attribute the shortage of employees to federal and state unemployment benefits that can, at times, pay more than lower-wage jobs.

The federal weekly supplement of $300 is expected to remain in effect until Sept. 6, 2021.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the number of claims for unemployment insurance in Chatham County decreased within the past year, but increased between February and March 2021 by more than 1,300.

“There are plenty of people in the community who need this help,” said Michael Owens of the Tourism Leadership Council. But, Owens said, right now, they’re looking at “an unintended consequence.”

“It’s harmful to the workforce that’s sitting in. There are servers who would have been working that shift, who want to work that shift, but they can’t, it’s closed. And it’s closed because we only have five staff members instead of 12, ” said Owens.
A staff stretched thin

Brian Gonet of The Public Kitchen & Bar in Savannah’s downtown said he and other employees are being "worked to the bone." As the executive chef, Gonet typically wears many hats but, now, that’s multiplied.

“It’s a constant scramble every day,” said Gonet, who works with eight other employees, when it should be 14. “We can’t even step off the line to take a bathroom break.”

Gonet describes long lines snaking around the building of the restaurant, and having to accommodate 100 patrons within a 30-minute span.

“You have to seat them because they’re all empty tables,” said Gonet, “And then you end up with what they call ‘waves’," where workers are constantly trying to serve a new set of customers.

“And you’re just beat, you know what I mean?” he said.

In order to retain his staff, the Public's ownership raised wages for kitchen and other back-of-the-house employees to at least $15 per hour and offered $1,500 sign-on bonuses for new hires that stay at least 90 days.

But the Public's Jamie Durrence, who also oversees three other local restaurants, said wage increases only help so much since “the job boards are so saturated with ads.”

In this market, he’s also wary that some may jump from one employer to another for the bonus.

However, he sees a silver lining for the restaurant industry — a lessening of the wage disparity between back-of-the-house and front-of-the house workers. Front-of-the-house employees include wait staff, bartenders and hosts and hostesses and earn tips from customers.

“I think that operators are going to be forced to make sure their employees who are working in the back have more of a living wage,” Durrence said, “I can’t speak for others but I will certainly have a more long-term outlook.”

'It’s an employee’s market'

Another local restaurant owner, Judy Ouzt of Papa’s Bar-B-Que & Seafood on Wilmington Island, said the labor shortage has created a "dog-eat-dog world" in the restaurant industry where businesses compete against themselves for employees.

“Everybody is grabbing employees from other restaurants,” she said.

Gonet from The Public Kitchen & Bar called it a “bidding and poaching war.”

And when the restaurant does manage to schedule interviews, oftentimes the applicants aren’t showing up.

To stay competitive, Ouzts has added as much as $5 to hourly wages and offered bonuses to staffers who bring in friends and family to work for at least 30 days. However, just last weekend, she had six workers “walk off” including a manager, who apparently left for a position that provided better benefits.

Ouzts points out that smaller businesses such as hers are at a disadvantage compared to larger, corporate entities that can afford to retain and attract employees.

“It’s worse than trying to open during a pandemic right now. Every day is a surprise because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Ouzts.

Island business face additional struggles

Being a coastal business like Papa’s comes with its own unique challenges. Workers are usually separated from their workplace on the island because of lack of affordable housing and transportation.

Tybee Island businesses, especially, view staff shortages as more of a long-term problem that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. North Beach Bar and Grill owner Kathryn Williams said they’re operating at about half of their potential capacity because of the labor shortage.

“We’re probably easily missing around 100 seats that we would typically have in service,” said Williams, who’s increased pay for prep and line cooks to $20 per hour.  

While some Tybee business owners are hopeful the staffing shortage will subside by the fall, Williams said seasonal businesses like hers will face another hurdle once the beachgoers leave — “lack of affordable housing, traffic on Highway 80, lack of public transportation and lack of parking."

“We’ll have the same things we had before if it gets back to anything like normal,” said Jack Flanigan, owner of The Crab Shack, which has offered a $3,000 hiring bonus for those who stay until Oct. 31. “It’s just gotten worse and worse every year."

In the meantime, employers across the Savannah area are urging customers to be mindful of their short staff.

“We’re doing what we can to stay open and serve our customers,” said Le Cafe Gourmet's Yeo.

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