As economy fully reopens, downtown merchants struggle to achieve full staffing

GREAT BARRINGTON — As the commercial hub of southern Berkshire County, downtown Great Barrington enjoys a special status that can be a blessing or a curse. Right now, downtown merchants are facing down the curse of the pandemic: trying to find workers as COVID-related restrictions ease and the busy summer season approaches.

Earlier this week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that, as of May 29, which is the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and sooner than expected, almost all COVID-19 restrictions will come to an end. That weekend will also be the first for the expanded version of Great Barrington’s much-ballyhooed outdoor dining system in which Railroad Street is decorated and narrowed to one lane to make way for diners and other visitors. The arrangement is credited by some for saving the downtown restaurant scene last summer as indoor dining was heavily restricted.

But all is not entirely well, even if the coast is now clear. A recent Edge stroll around Main and Railroad streets revealed “help-wanted” signs in nearly a dozen storefronts.

The Robert Lloyd Gallery is a new business that recently opened up on Railroad Street. It features, among other items, antiques and vintage barware. Photo: Terry Cowgill

This mirrors a national trend in which retailers and other employers are reporting a dearth of applications for openings as the busy summer season begins and the nation fully reopens after 15 months of economic slumber. To the untrained eye, this seems contradictory: the economy is producing strong numbers; unemployment is still far higher than it was pre-pandemic; and yet businesses report that they’re having trouble finding badly needed workers.

“It’s an everyday conversation with every type of business: retail, restaurants, tree trimming, tire shops,” said Betsy Andrus, who heads the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, whose office is on Railroad Street. “Every single business is suffering.”

Andrus said she has had frequent conversations with state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who agrees with her that one factor needs to be addressed by the state: the perverse incentives not to reenter the labor pool. Some low-wage unemployed workers are collecting the same or more in unemployment benefits than they would if they went back to work.

Betsy Andrus. Photo via LinkedIn

Andrus agrees that the state needs to do a better job of policing those who are collecting unemployment benefits in order to ascertain that they are actively looking for work and/or not refusing job offers for which they are qualified and able to fill.

“Not one single person in Berkshire County should be on unemployment because there is an epidemic of people looking for employees,” Andrus continued. “Everybody is looking for someone. It’s a huge problem.”

As has been reported, Berkshire County — and indeed the entire region — has seen an influx of urbanites fleeing to the countryside. The newcomers are paying top dollar for homes and condos and spending money elsewhere in the economy. These people are seen by many as helping the Berkshire County economy stay afloat after Baker ordered a series of restrictions that resulted in a significant economic slowdown.

What happens to the local economy if those newcomers flee in exasperation over a lack of services such as those provided by repair shops, restaurants, and home renovation specialists? To make matters worse, for those seeking to build a new home or renovate an existing one, the price of building materials, especially steel and lumber, has skyrocketed since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The Two Flower Cafe on Railroad Street is looking for baristas, waitstaff, a dishwasher, and a chef. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Andrus has talked to many business owners, such as those who run automotive repair shops, and they tell her they have never seen so many new customers. They would hire more employees to accommodate the newcomers, but recruits are scarce.

Beginning in March of this year, the federal government began issuing an extra $300 per week in benefits to those on unemployment. That extra cash is set to expire on Labor Day under the American Rescue Plan. At this writing, 21 states have canceled those extra benefits, citing labor shortages that could harm the economic recovery.

In an Edge interview, Pignatelli said, “It’s a problem everywhere you go: Lenox, Stockbridge, Lee, Great Barrington. Every town has the same problem.”

Pignatelli said he has been talking to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, who represents the Berkshires in Washington, about federal unemployment policy: “I told him we’re going to ruin the economy as we’re trying to reopen the economy. It’s time for people to go back to work.”

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli

Pignatelli has also been talking with a lot of businesses in his district, which stretches from Richmond and Lenox south to the Connecticut line and east as far as Russell, Blandford, and Tolland in Hampshire County. He said even some of the larger organizations such as Canyon Ranch and Tanglewood have “a serious problem with lack of staffing.”

“It’s almost like a rite of passage as a young person in the Berkshires to go work in the parking lots at Tanglewood,” Pignatelli said.

Pignatelli said he would like to see the state take action in the form of providing incentives for people to get back to work. In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont announced recently that the state would be offering $1,000 to residents who find jobs after a long period of unemployment. The bonus would be paid at the end of the second month back on the job. The idea is that it would actually save the state money and help with the economic recovery.

Pignatelli said he was intrigued with Lamont’s action but also liked the idea of making up the difference between unemployment payments and the workers’ paychecks for a limited amount of time.

Pingnatelli noted that the budget of the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which includes MassHealth, now comprises 53% of the state’s $47 billion operating budget.

“That’s because of unemployment, so if we can get off unemployment and get you back to work, it gets you off MassHealth and onto your company’s healthcare program,” he explained.

Miller Pub
Like so many other downtown businesses, the Miller Pub is looking for help. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Pignatelli also acknowledged that other factors account for the labor shortage, most notably lack of adequate childcare, calling it “a very serious problem” that he has heard articulated by a number of his constituents. He added that, “There’s people who want to go to work but have problems with no day care so that’s an issue. The other side is there’s some people who are making more money on unemployment.”

The supply of workers is dwarfed by the demand. To wit, this spring Berkshire Community College will graduate 38 students from its hospitality program but there are at least 1,000 available jobs in that sector in Berkshire County, Pignatelli said.

Pignatelli said he has had conversations with officials at the state Department of Unemployment and they have told him they’re working on a solution and that he should know more in a couple weeks.

“So much of it depends on how much federal money is going to be coming into the state,” he said. “Will it be discretionary? Will it be restricted? … There are some real opportunities to jumpstart the economy in the right way. I hope we’ll have a plan going on in the next few weeks.”

Will Curletti, owner of Fuel Coffee Shop in Great Barrington. Photo: Nicholas Dayal

Not everyone is convinced that unemployment benefits are discouraging work. Will Curletti, a former Great Barrington Finance Committee member who owns the popular Fuel coffee shop and cafe with his wife Robin, noted the suddenness of the need for labor.

“I don’t know if I agree with the concept that people aren’t willing to work anymore,” Curletti told The Edge. “I just think there’s a lot of employers looking for the same people in the workforce at the same time.”

Curletti is still looking for two or three workers to fill gaps in his staff rotation to enable him to stay open later in the day and perhaps even into the evenings on the weekend. He’s currently open daily from 7 a.m.–3 p.m. but before the pandemic, Fuel was open on some evenings with a full bar.

Curletti has been using social media to advertise and recently placed a sign in his front window that announced: “Help wanted. If you’re awesome, please apply inside.”

“Since I put my sign up, I got two applications so we’re processing those right now,” Curletti said. “I’d love to stay open a little later but I can’t do it until I get a couple more people in here.”

Robin Helfand. Photo courtesy the Robin’s Candy website.

Across the street at Robin’s Candy, proprietor Robin Helfand reports that “I am still advertising to hire, but at this point I’m in decent shape — somewhere in between bad and great. I think I’m one of the few businesses that’s not going to have to shorten my hours if I don’t hire anybody else.”

Still, she added that she is “nervous that I may need another body or two, with all those people fleeing the city.” Like Curletti, she can extend her hours of operation to more nights per week if she can hire more workers.

As Helfand sees it, she has two factors in her favor: there are young people not currently on unemployment — mostly students — who are looking for summer work, and the perception that working at a candy store is fun.

Like Pignatelli, Helfand cited the childcare situation and the “uncertainty of the school schedule,” and the possible disruption of the schedules of summer day camps and sleepaway programs” as factors in the worker shortage. And of course, there is also the fear of getting COVID.

SoCo Creamery Railroad Street
Patrons enjoy frozen treats from SoCo outside the shop on Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

That has led some businesses, including SoCo Creamery, to hire younger workers. SoCo owner Erik Bruun said he had in the past relied heavily on Simon’s Rock students to work in his Railroad Street ice cream shop, but even when the college was in session with in-person learning, student movements off campus were restricted, so most were unable to work for him. Simon’s Rock students “have been like a minor league system” for SoCo, he added.

“I’m relying on younger workers this summer,” Bruun said in an interview. “It is a common challenge, especially in the food business.” The cost of housing is also why he loses some of his workers.

Bruun has taken down his help-wanted sign. He currently has enough staff members to operate on a normal schedule but he will have to devote more time supervising and training his workers because they are younger and most have little experience in a retail environment.

Businessman Richard Stanley, who owns the Triplex Cinema as well as several downtown buildings, reports that his movie theater is set to reopen on Friday. He told The Edge his staffing is sufficient for now because he will be operating at reduced capacity, as required by Baker’s orders, which limit occupancy in most cinemas and performance venues to 50%.

The Triplex Cinema is set to open tomorrow for the first time in 15 months. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Back to the subject of the scarcity of labor: some analysts remain unconvinced that incentives such as generous unemployment benefits are causing the labor shortage.

Today, in his morning newsletter, entitled “The myth of labor shortages,” Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist David Leonhart posited that if there is indeed a lack of available workers, “capitalism has an answer” — namely offering higher wages.

Leonhart cites several large companies which have raised hourly rates for their workers, including Bank of America, Amazon, Chipotle, Costco, McDonald’s, Walmart, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Sheetz convenience stores. Of course, that could be a heavy lift for a mom-and-pop restaurant or storefront in Berkshire County. Still, it’s all a part of what Leonhart calls the normalization of low wages:

“That so many are complaining about the situation is not a sign that something is wrong with the American economy. It is a sign that corporate executives have grown so accustomed to a low-wage economy that many believe anything else is unnatural.”

Click here to read Leonhart’s newsletter. It’s free and he offers numerous external links to prove his point.