As more people dine-out, restaurants struggle to hire staff amid restaurant worker shortage

QUINCY, Mass — Business is booming at Liberty Tavern in Quincy Center, but a problem is looming behind the scenes.

“It’s been great that restrictions are starting to loosen up. We’re starting to get more people vaccinated and feeling comfortable coming through the door,” said owner Nick Palermo. “Unfortunately, the biggest issue we’re having right now is getting enough people to take care of those guests.”

Palermo said it’s frustrating to be short-staffed as the business is picking up again.

“It’s defeating because you want to be able to accommodate everyone who walks through the door,” said Palermo. “You get back to a certain point where you can have a certain capacity, but can we fill every table because do we have enough staff to take care of this?”

Palermo isn’t alone.

Evviva Trattoria has locations in Wrentham, Westford, Marlborough, and Maynard. General manager Charles Belanger told Boston 25 News they are short-staffed across all of their restaurants.

“We’re looking for everybody, top to bottom,” Belanger said. “Managers to dishwashers.”

President of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association Bob Luz told Boston 25 News the problem is widespread.

“This is a crisis from Boston to Pittsfield, Newburyport to Provincetown, and everywhere in between,” Luz said. “There’s not one restaurant that’s anywhere close to fully-staffed at this point.”

So where have all the workers gone?

“It’s a result of two things,” Luz explained. “One, when we laid off 255,000 people [restaurant workers] last March, a lot of them quite honestly went and found work in different industries and decided to stay there. Then secondly, we have folks that have decided that between the Massachusetts unemployment payment --which is the highest in the nation -- and the federal unemployment payment, they’re making more to sit at home than they were working.”

Restaurant owners told Boston 25 News it’s frustrating to finally open and not have the staff keep things running smoothly.

“The busier you get, the more staff you need,” Belanger said. “You can’t wear the people that you have too thin, then the guests suffer.”

“I fear for the restaurant industry as a whole going forward,” Palermo said. “Hopefully, there’s a little more drive and incentive for people to get back to work and stick it out with this industry.”

Many restaurant owners are trying to stay optimistic and look on the bright side of the shortage.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to diversify our workforce and to offer opportunities to some communities that still have high unemployment and don’t have a lot of high-paying jobs available to them,” Luz said.

While restaurants across the board struggle to find staff, they are the lucky ones.

Nearly one in four restaurants across Massachusetts closed permanently during the pandemic.

“On March 1, 2020, there were 16,000 restaurants in Massachusetts,” Luz said. “When we reopened at the end of June outside, 3,400 restaurants never reopened. So that’s a 23 percent drop.”