Labor shortage hits Wareham employers

Students help some weather through
Jul 5, 2022

Summertime is here, and so is … a labor shortage?

Job ads that once called for experienced workers now ask for those “willing to learn.” The harbormaster who once employed between five to 10 summer employees now has three to work with, and one’s away on military leave. Even higher pay hasn’t attracted enough qualified staffers to work in Gateway Tavern’s kitchen.

The summer is the moneymaker season for many Wareham businesses, as tourists flock to town to enjoy miles of coastlines and Cape-style views without the traffic. But some local employers say that they have not been immune to the national labor shortage, with the exception of a few long-time mainstays.

“I have never seen such a bad time of hiring people,” Harbormaster Garry Buckminster said of finding workers for the Wareham Department of Natural Resources. “It’s unbelievable.”

He said he’s had trouble finding workers to fill summer positions, like seasonal deputy harbormasters and shellfish constables, even as the department has raised wages. In past years, the department has hired five to 10 workers for the summer, he said.

Buckminster rattled off the numbers of a recent attempt to hire more seasonal staff: 16 interviews scheduled, eight candidates confirming the date of the interview, two candidates who showed up for the interview and one person who took up a part-time position.

“We’re just seeing no interest,” the harbormaster said. For now, he’s working with three summer staffers — one of whom is out on military leave. 

The department has seen a big uptick in calls since the pandemic began, Buckmister said, which adds to the strain on staffers. Last year alone, the department received 4,000 animal control calls.

Gateway Tavern owner Joe Sauro said he’s been struggling with the shortage, too.

“It’s horrible,” he said, calling staffing challenges the “worst I’ve ever seen.”

Finding applicants for the back-of-house kitchen staff is proving difficult, he said, from dishwashers to line cooks.

Sauro said staffing difficulties began when the pandemic started and continued even with higher pay.

The Gateway Tavern has kept its open-seven-days-a-week schedule for lunch and dinner this summer, Sauro said, though sometimes the kitchen has to run on a shorter staff. Quarantine protocols for employees sick with the coronavirus have compounded issues, he said.

Before the pandemic, Sauro said the restaurant only closed three days a year. So far this year, it’s been closed for 20 days.

“I don’t wanna close,” Sauro said. “I’m tired of closing.”

Other employers around Wareham and beyond are seeing similar issues, according to the president and CEO of the Cape Cod Canal Region Chamber of Commerce, Marie Oliva. The chamber represents Wareham, Bourne and Sandwich.

“It’s a universal, global problem and it’s also a local problem,” she said.

Qualified help is hard to find

Oliva said the labor shortage crosses industries and hasn’t been specific to any one kind of business.

She said she’s heard of businesses cutting open hours or pausing expansion plans to cope with fewer staff.

A key problem for some employers, she said, is finding experienced applicants.

“It’s one thing to be short of staff,” Oliva said, “but they’ve gotta be trained.”

That’s an issue that the screen-printing business Soft as a Grape knows too well, owner Allen Katzen said.

Sitting at a desk in an office at the back of Soft as a Grape’s manufacturing facility, Katzen spoke about the staffing challenges that he’s seen erupt in the past five to seven years.

Soft as a Grape once advertised their need for experienced screen-printers or embroiderers.

“That person doesn't exist anymore,” Katzen said. Now, they look for applicants who are enthusiastic and ready to be trained. 

Sauro said the same of some of his kitchen staff. He said it’s not that his back of house staff aren’t talented by any means, but they’re just not as qualified as employees he’s had in the past.

Soft as a Grape has had to put more energy into training workers.

“We have to be cognizant of the employees’ needs,” Katzen said.

The business operates, beyond its Wareham production facility, a number of retail locations across New England and Florida. At its Martha’s Vineyard store, the company offers two apartments for retail workers, Katzen said, helping with the extraordinary cost of living on the island.

For some stores too, Soft as a Grape has offered a referral fee for employees who help find new applicants who stay on, usually for its retail locations on the Cape, Katzen said.

Otherwise, business hasn’t changed too much at the Wareham facility, he said.

Meanwhile, some businesses that rely on returning workers have plenty of staff.

Students help employers weather shortage

Onset classics run by the Salerno family, like Nana’s Ice Cream and Candy, generally have enough employees this summer, family member Marie Greig said.

“We try to keep it real local,” she said. “It’s almost multi-generational.”

The Salerno family is entwined in Onset, running village hotspots like Marc Anthony’s La Pizzeria, the Glen Cove Hotel and Salerno’s Function Hall.

Greig said that keeping employees, often students, around year round helps even during the slower winter season. Giving students a job all year helps bring them back in the busier summers.

Often, students work at shops like Nana’s through high school and college, and then may encourage their younger siblings to apply, she said — leading to steadfast workers over several years.

Some of the Salernos’ businesses also hire teachers and paraprofessionals who often work in the summer, Greig said.

The Onset businesses haven’t completely avoided any and all challenges — Greig said costs have risen for items like chocolate at Nana’s — but as far as staffing goes, things are set. They also had the advantage, she said, that employees can hop from Nana’s to Marc Anthony’s to wherever in a pinch, if needed.

“It’s been tough on the other businesses,” Greig said of the labor shortage.

But the familiarity and locality of the Onset shops really helps, she said. The Salernos, like Mark of Marc Anthony’s and John of Glen Cove, work to be flexible with students’ schedules.

“They stay,” she said.

Long-term retention helps other Wareham watering holes like Kool Kone, owner Tom Strom said.

“They work for me for six, seven years,” Strom said, noting that students can work at the restaurant from high school to college.

This summer, Strom isn’t dealing with a staffing shortage — if anything, he’s overstaffed, he said, as employees bring their friends to apply to work there too.

It’s the spring and fall times that staffing is harder, when students return to school, he said.

“We’re pretty busy year round,” said Strom, who’s owned Kool Kone for 17 years. “We do work pretty hard.”