Across the North Fork, businesses scramble to fill positions

Visitors to the North Fork encounter dozens of options for farm-to-table fare, along with wineries and bucolic farm and water views to enjoy.

Potential employees have their pick, too. From restaurant line cooks and buspeople to tasting room staff and hotel workers, newspaper classified sections and websites like Indeed and Craigslist are brimming with employment opportunities in the hospitality industry.

As that industry booms, however, hiring managers are struggling to find staff.

And every season, some owners say, it gets a little bit harder.

“The only difference between this year and last year is [that] last year, I had two people apply for a job and this year, I had one,” said George Giannaris, owner of the Hellenic Restaurant in East Marion.

Ten or 15 years ago, Mr. Giannaris said, hiring just wasn’t an issue. “School would end and they’d all look for work,” he said of local teens. “We never had a problem.”

This season, he’s supplemented his staff with 14 foreign students through the J-1 work visa program, on which he relies. “It was an answered prayer,” he said of the program, which has helped him staff his restaurant for four seasons now.

Help wanted signs pop up every August, as college students who were home for the summer return to campus. But “the season” now stretches further and further beyond Tumbleweed Tuesday.

“Even with college kids, it was a big problem with them vanishing halfway through the season, or not being here for Labor Day,” Mr. Giannaris said. “It’s like a retail outfit not having employees at Christmas. But it’s become the norm.

“There’s no such thing as commitment anymore,” he added, echoing the sentiments of many local business owners.

According to a report published earlier this summer by the Pew Research Center, fewer teens are working summer jobs. At the start of the millennium, roughly half of all teens in the U.S. spent their summers working — lifeguarding, waiting tables, serving ice cream. Despite a growing population of working age teens (16 to 19), only about 35 percent nationwide held a job this summer, according to the report.

Susan Halladay, who manages Jamesport Bay Suites, says the seasonal nature of her business exacerbates the problem.

But like Mr. Giannaris, she says commitment is a rarity. Teens, Ms. Halladay said, often come in seeking a job running the paddleboard rental side of the business. “They think it’s glamorous and want to lie on the beach all day,” she said. “But then they see it’s hard work and scram.”

The Pew report suggests several reasons for the declining employment trend, including shorter summer breaks, more teens taking summer school classes and a growing number who perform unpaid community service or take unpaid internships to bolster their college applications, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not count as employment.

Across the hospitality industry, owners and managers shared similar stories, attributing their hardships to a longer tourist season, rising wages and a strengthening job market that has allowed workers to seek employment in fields that offer more regular hours and with larger companies that can more readily offer incentives.

In 2014, for example, Starbucks announced a program that would cover the cost for employees to take online courses through Arizona State University. Recent job postings for the Halyard and Sound View Inn in Greenport advertise benefits, including health insurance, paid vacation time and rental housing assistance.

Every business owner interviewed for this story cited housing as a key factor in the labor shortage.

“The market is saturated with opportunity to work in the biz right now,” said Marc LaMaina, owner of Lucharitos in Greenport and Little Lucharitos in Aquebogue. “But the workforce has nowhere to live out here.”

The proliferation of short-term rentals, Mr. LaMaina said, is contributing to a growing housing crisis. “Greenport is working on the short-term rental problem. Once that is solved, you should see more ‘for rent’ classifieds. Then you will see fewer help wanted signs.”

An affordable housing project is also in the works for Southold. Conifer Realty and the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, partners on the project, aim to bring 50 affordable apartments to a 17.2-acre site on County Road 48 in Greenport.

In May, New York State awarded the project, known as Vineyard View, $5.7 million in funding. That project is still awaiting site plan approval. A public hearing on the project closed Aug. 8.

A new report released by the Long Island Association shows that dwindling wages paired with soaring home values have “categorically shifted the living arrangements and life choices” among millennials 23 to 34 years old.

In 1970, the report says, the median price for a home on Long Island was $180,000 and 68 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds owned homes. In 2018, the median home price is $450,000, and the home ownership rate among millennials is only 20 percent.

That disparity impacts the economy, as their research suggests that the reduction in households has resulted in an annual $707.2 million loss to Long Island’s economy.

Until projects like Vineyard View come to pass, business owners must think outside the box.

“I don’t really know what direction it’s going to go in,” Mr. Giannaris said. He said that without a staff, he could have to pull table service from parts of the restaurant. And there are other business woes, like a rising minimum wage, which could force him to raise menu prices.

“It’s going to take some creative approaches,” especially to solve the housing issue, he said, pointing out the vacant North Fork Bank/Capital One building on Main Road in Mattituck. “That would not make a bad place to put apartments in” for the workforce, he said.

Mr. LaMaina said staying open year-round helps him maintain a core staff.

“We can’t pay these elaborate salaries. We would sink come January,” he said. “So we have to stretch it out. Our team appreciates the year-round work and camaraderie, so they stay. We are a family here. Dysfunctional, yes. But still a family.”

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Photo caption: Help Wanted signs have been on display at restaurants and businesses across the North Fork since mid-summer. (Tara Smith photo)