2018-08-09 / Front Page

Worker shortage gives eateries summertime blues

Fewer teens working helps lead to closures on some days
BY ROBERT BERCZUK


Kseniya Farrell, 16, folds pizza boxes Monday during her shift at Jamestown Fish. A dearth of teenagers in the workforce — half as many as 30 years ago — has caused some local restaurants to limit their hours due to a lack of available employees. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Kseniya Farrell, 16, folds pizza boxes Monday during her shift at Jamestown Fish. A dearth of teenagers in the workforce — half as many as 30 years ago — has caused some local restaurants to limit their hours due to a lack of available employees. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN The rite of passage of teenagers working summer jobs for money and experience has morphed into last rites for some local restaurants’ schedules.

Several eateries in town are closed at least one day a week this summer and some also have stopped serving lunch, something unheard of as little as two years ago, when most places were open for both lunch and dinner daily. Part of that, owners said, is because of a dearth of teenagers looking for jobs at their places.

“It’s definitely a difficult scenario as far as finding people,” said John Martin, owner of Angels Kitchen, which hopes to be open this weekend.


Teenagers Robert Hostetler, Alex Supron, Maya De La Torre and Hannah Shapiro, left to right, scoop ice cream for customers Monday afternoon at Spinnakers Cafe. About 80 percent of the employees at Spinnakers are teenagers, the largest percentage of teenaged employees at a business on the island. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Teenagers Robert Hostetler, Alex Supron, Maya De La Torre and Hannah Shapiro, left to right, scoop ice cream for customers Monday afternoon at Spinnakers Cafe. About 80 percent of the employees at Spinnakers are teenagers, the largest percentage of teenaged employees at a business on the island. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Thirty years ago, nearly two-thirds of U.S. teenagers worked summer jobs; 20 years ago, more than half of them did; and now, one-third of teens have them, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There also is more competition from older workers, said Teri Morisi, branch chief at the bureau’s Division of Occupational Employment Projections, in a recent story on National Public Radio.

“[There are] young college graduates who can’t get a job in their field and they’re taking what they can get,” Morisi said.

Some owners said it’s difficult to find teens willing to put in the hours; some only want to work three days a week and don’t want to work weekends. The situation has been getting worse in the past few years, and it’s harder every year to find good help, they said.

“We’ve received fewer applications over the years, but we’ve been fortunate enough to have a great group of kids from Jamestown and North Kingstown who keep us up and running,” said Mike Ridge, owner of Spinnakers Cafe, at which about 80 percent of the staff are teenagers.

Alex Dill, head chef at Jamestown Fish, said since this is a more affluent area, some teens “don’t really need a paycheck throughout the summer to survive” as opposed to more blue-collar areas.

“They don’t seem to have a necessity for a job as much,” Dill added.

Fish is closed Tuesdays and no longer serves lunch, partly because of staffing issues and partly due to a smaller demand, said owner Matthew MacCartney.

Some teens also don’t have access to a vehicle and there is no late or Sunday bus service in town, which limits the potential employee pool, MacCartney said.

Other applicants won’t take kitchen jobs if a wait staff position is not available, Mac- Cartney said. In part, that’s because diverging wages between kitchen staff and servers have grown with inflation. As meal costs have increased, tips also rise while kitchen staff wages have been more stagnant. That means a server can earn two to three times more per hour than kitchen help, Dill said.

“It directly affected the front of the house pockets through tips, but it didn’t for the back of the house,” he said. “It’s a reward system that’s broken.”

Martin said the paucity might force him to be open only a few days a week to start until he can find more workers.

While there are benefits of working at a restaurant, such as interacting with people and learning to multitask, it’s not an easy job, according to Martin and Dill.

“You have kids that are good — don’t get me wrong; I’m not lumping them all into one category — but a lot of kids spend most of their time playing video games and this is not a video game,” Martin said. “You have to move around a lot and it’s a lot of work. A lot of kids, if it’s not an app, they have a difficult time with it.”

“Being in a kitchen and cooking has become a less desirable job,” Dill said. “The kitchen is not an easy environment. It’s fast paced and it’s a lot of work.”

Amy Barclay, owner of Simpatico, agreed some jobs are too difficult for teens.

“To be in the kitchen or on the line running food has got to be hands-down one of the most stressful jobs that you can do,” she said.

Yet, her experiences with teen workers have been different than others in town.

“My high school kids and my college kids are what I call ‘in it to win it;’ they are extraordinarily focused,” said Barclay.

While Simpatico is closed two days a week and does not serve lunch, that is by design and not because of an inability to find staff, Barclay said.

MacCartney said he doesn’t see this labor pool getting any better in the future, but he’s doing the best he can with what he has.

“Some kids walk in and are really hard workers and really, really smart, but they have to be taught everything,” MacCartney said. “As I joke, by Labor Day everyone’s going to know what to do — and that’s when they go home.”

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