North Fork faces a summer help crunch with various factors making staffing tougher than ever

On your next quiet drive across the North Fork, peek north and south at the business signs that dot the main roads. Odds are you’ll see plenty of other signs, too: those that read “help wanted.” 

A nursery, a farm stand, a landscaper and a restaurant are all looking for help in Jamesport, for example. Drive just a couple of miles and you’ll see all kinds of employment opportunities. 

It’s that time of year again, but employers say it’s been particularly hard this year to find help in preparation for the summer. It’s a phenomenon being felt across Southold and Riverhead towns.

“It’s been a total nightmare trying to staff for this summer. I just need bodies,” said Bunnii Buglione, manager at Ellen’s on Front restaurant in Greenport.

Hiring has been such a challenge this spring, the restaurant is offering a $50 gift card to anyone with a successful referral for employment.

Ms. Buglione said loosened restrictions, which have allowed restaurants to expand capacity, have created a rush on hiring, making it even more difficult. Offering a higher wage has helped Ellen’s retain staff, but they still need more.

A mix of factors, from a lack of affordable housing on the North Fork to pandemic-related enhanced unemployment benefits, are contributing to the challenge of staffing.

“There’s so much that plays into it,” she said. “I don’t want to blame the extra $300 a week, but if you can get that until September, what’s the incentive to go back to work?”

A recent change means New York State regulations now require recipients of unemployment to document their efforts to find a new job and submit proof. As part of the $300 federal bonus, President Joe Biden also said those on unemployment who are offered a “suitable” job must take it or risk losing their benefits.

Jeff Strong of Strong’s Marine, a multi-generational marina business operating in Mattituck and beyond, also suspects enhanced unemployment benefits are deterring people from returning to work.

“The federally subsidized unemployment is, in my opinion, way beyond its expiration date,” he said. “I think there was absolutely a need for that and [I’m] glad the federal government had that program, but in my view, that should have been ended many months ago.”

Mr. Strong is no stranger to the challenge of filling summer jobs. This year provided another hurdle, however, with the first full season of operation for Windamere, a restaurant at their water club in Mattituck, which was previously Pace’s Dockside.

Like many other hospitality businesses on the East End, Mr. Strong said he had been banking on using the J-1 visa program, which allows young people from abroad, often college students, to work here for the summer.

“We had been counting on [the program], which unfortunately seems to be very limited if not nonexistent” due to the pandemic, he said. “We’re hopeful that there will be a change in that.”

Bob Kern, president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, said child care has also been a challenge for people who otherwise might be ready to reenter the workforce or still can’t work regular hours.

“I’ve spoken to employers who’ve said they have to juggle their regular people because of their child care,” he said. 

“Previously they had children in school and both parents were out working. But when the schools aren’t [fully] open, it’s a nightmare,” Mr. Kern said.

Mr. Strong acknowledged that the restaurant/hospitality industry was among the hardest hit by Covid and other factors, like a lack of affordable housing.

“Housing — especially for full-time people — is definitely becoming more of a challenge,” Mr. Strong said, noting that his company has purchased houses to try and help address the workforce housing crisis.

But Mr. Strong wants to send this message to prospective employees: “During Covid, it got really, really quiet, but you can earn a really nice living back in a restaurant again,” he said.

While the North Fork remains in an affordable housing crisis, the standard housing market is booming and there are more people living on — and visiting — the North Fork than ever.

Lauren Lombardi of Lombardi’s Love Lane Market said that’s driving the need to have an even larger staff.

 “We are definitely busier,” she said. “This winter and spring are busy. There are lots of new faces and far as business coming into the store. So that’s good, but I am still looking for help.”

She’s advertised for help but said it’s still a challenge finding candidates since so many other businesses are also looking.

“Of course I want to attract people to work here,” Ms. Lombardi said. “But I really don’t know why it is so hard right now. I think everyone is busy. I wanted an awning put up outside and the guy said he could do it in September.”

The population boom has also caused landscapers and pool companies to be busier than ever — with new plantings for recently purchased homes and pools for residents looking to avoid crowded beaches. They’re putting more crews to work and the hiring can’t come fast enough, several employers in those industries told us.

As a manager at one local pool company put it: “Covid changed everything.”

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