Business

Some local businesses continue to struggle with staff shortages as school year begins

Staff shortages are nothing new on the North Fork.

It’s been a perennial problem in recent years, with many businesses struggling to find employees each season. But this summer, both on the North Fork and across the country, the scramble to find sufficient help has reached new proportions. 

There’s been little consensus on why staffing has been so difficult — for the service industry in particular — as demand has returned to a semblance of pre-pandemic levels, but the shortage for some employers has been only exacerbated as college and high school students quit or cut back on hours to return to school. 

“This has been going on for the last several months,” said Bob Kern, president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce. “I can tell you that at some businesses, people are demanding more money, which would bring the costs of goods up. [Some] have had to close their doors for a couple days a week because of that … [or] because they couldn’t find anybody, even while schools were closed.” 

Magic Fountain, an iconic Mattituck ice cream store, elected to close two days a week in August due to staff shortages. Up to then, the shop had been open nearly every day since owner Chaudry Ali bought the business in 2007. Now that school has resumed , he’s been forced to cut back further, by closing at 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. 

“Mid-August to the end of August, I lost seven people to colleges and then school started, and some of the kids have a lot of after-school activities so they don’t want to work, so I’m literally down to a crew of nine people,” Mr. Ali said. “Usually, we have around 30 people and 25 in the fall.” 

He added that the hour change was also made to be more considerate of school nights, but it’s still not enough. On Sept. 14, Mr. Ali announced via Instagram that he’d also be downsizing his menu to offer 45 flavors rather than 58. Black cherry bourbon, cherry pistachio, coconut avocado, cotton candy and other flavors will be phased out, to return only seasonally. 

“I’ve never seen — in my 15 years owning the Magic Fountain, this is the first time I ever dealt with it this bad,” he said, adding that everyone else is in the same boat. He’s spread the word that he’s hiring, posting signs on his door and on the internet and speaking to schools and colleges — but he said, there’s “just not enough help available.” 

Bunnii Buglione, who oversees three businesses in Greenport and Riverhead, turned to Facebook several times this summer to implore people to apply for positions. 

“Desperate call for servers and runners,” she wrote Aug. 28, seeking help for the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead, where her company handles catering. “We have shifts available starting tomorrow!” 

An earlier post on Aug. 12 offered $50 cash or a $100 gift card to anyone who could help her make a successful hire. As of Sept. 9, Ms. Buglione said she’d lost “almost all of our staff now that school has started.”

She also manages Ellen’s on Front and Jennie’s at Drossos in Greenport. Jennie’s is normally open full-time from Memorial Day to Labor Day and then on weekends until just after Columbus Day. But this year’s shortages mean the establishment is open only on weekends — when she can find the staff. 

Ms. Buglione hires a lot of local high school students over the summer, and many continue to work on the weekends during the school year, but staffing can still be “a bit challenging.” 

“There’s always that panic moment in September or late August, when all the college kids go back to school where people are just struggling through the last couple weeks of summer, and then in the beginning before everyone comes home from school,” she said. 

Ms. Buglione said some Greenport restaurants have started sharing staff. 

“The blessing and the curse of working in a tiny tourist town is that you get hit with these really high-intensity moments where you just don’t know how you’re going to make it through. But then you turn around and you’ve got your other local restaurants and stores who are there to help and support you because we’re in this tiny little town and everyone’s family,” she said. 

Gabriella Macari of Macari Vineyards said over email that the business “recently lost several amazing wine educators when colleges opened,” although they may return on holidays and next summer. “This year is worse than last year, as many team members were attending classes remote and could still help out on weekends,” she added.

The vineyard recently posted a help wanted ad in the classified section of Times Review seeking room servers, hosts and bussers for “an immediate start.” 

“We feel that the best way to combat this staffing crisis is to continue to create a great educational culture for our current employees, which will help retain and attract talent moving forward,” Ms. Macari said, emphasizing that the vineyard covers part of the cost of wine education for their team.

Mr. Kern said he’s “hyper focused” right now on whether people who had to stay home with their kids during the pandemic will reenter the workforce. He added that the season for many businesses employing students ends after Labor Day. 

“Generally speaking, there is an employment epidemic right now and part of it is child care. Part of it is the lack of J-1 visas. That’s where we are right now,” he said.

He added that “a lot of people have been vacuumed” from the North Fork to the South Fork, where businesses are “paying really high wages.” 

“The other thing that’s happening on the North Fork is businesses approaching other businesses’ employees by offering them more money,” he said. 

Ms. Buglione said that’s not really an issue in Greenport, although it’s something some employers are worried about right now. 

“If one of us suffers, we all suffer. And again, we do share staff,” she said, adding that if one of her employees can make more money doing the same thing somewhere else, she’d be “proud” her business played a role in getting them there. 

Mr. Kern said the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce is working with state and local representatives to negotiate changes to labor laws to make it easier to employ youth. 

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