Vt. restaurants struggle to stay open amid staffing shortages

Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 11:46 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Local restaurants are starving for staff, just one of the ongoing labor force problems triggered by the pandemic. In the past two weeks, a handful of Burlington restaurants closed their doors because of the staffing shortage.

The Vermont Tap House is temporarily closed due to a lack of staff. The owners are taking the unplanned hiatus to renovate and say they plan to reopen in December, but other businesses haven’t been so lucky. The Bearded Frog in Shelburne recently closed their doors for good and other restaurants are changing hours and limiting their offerings.

“Pre-COVID, we were never terribly challenged with regard to staffing,” said Chris Goss with Heirloom Hospitality, which owns Doc Ponds in Stowe, Prohibition Pig in Waterbury, and Hen of the Wood in Burlington. Goss says they’ve been doing whatever they can to keep people on board. “We’ve been working on our culture, communication, cleanliness, and professionalism, and really building sustainable skills for our team members.”

All of those restaurants are located in areas drawing in a lot of tourism. Amy Spear, with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, says visitors make up 40% of restaurant expenditures in the state. However rising wages, inflation, and short staffing resulting from the pandemic continue to cause problems. Spear says it’s even worse now that federal Restaurant Revitalization Funds are no longer available. “There are 581 restaurants still shouldering $120 million in need through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund program.”

Channel 3 reached out to a handful of restaurants on Thursday afternoon to talk about their challenges. Many, like Leunig’s Bistro in Burlington, had a hard time finding anyone to chat with because of staffing issues. “Not particularly with this restaurant. I do see very often it’s the back of the house,” said Leunig’s Mackenzie Embry, “It’s harder to keep people up front, but it’s even harder to hire in the back of the house.”

Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington says low wages are one thing deterring people from the restaurant industry. In Vermont, the average pay is only $16 an hour, but he says there are other factors to consider when it comes to employment in Vermont. “The things that play a role aren’t specific to employment, but they are specific to our workforce and labor force -- are things like available housing, good schools, and availability of child care,” Harrington said.

“Employees around here really understand the busy season and what we’re faced with post-pandemic. I just want to say I’m really proud to be here and work with the people that I do,” Embry said.

Harrington encourages restaurants looking to hire and those looking for jobs to use Vermont JobLink to connect.

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