DC area restaurant and hospitality industry begins to bounce back but struggles with hiring help

With spring finally in the air and the increased distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, restaurants and bars in the D.C. region are happy to see their businesses bounce back again, especially when many of them were closed this time last year.

READ MORE: Limited indoor dining resumes for many DC-area bars and restaurants, Montgomery County’s ban remains in place

A lot of them however, need help with hiring employees to meet pent up demand.

"It’s getting tough to find staff," said Alan Pohoryles, owner of Tommy Joe’s in Bethesda.

"I don’t know if people are just scared to come back or if they are still on unemployment and don’t want to get off their couch. If we start increasing business and don’t have the staff to service it, it’s going to be trouble because everyone has an opinion and if you get one bad review and they tell a friend you’ll loose customers."

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Some other restaurant owners in some of the more popular beach destinations on the Eastern Shore also report that they are struggling with trying to find seasonal help. 

"My brother, my dad and I were working on the floor this weekend because we didn’t have enough staff and we opened Hideaways this past weekend and we were busing tables, we were cleaning dishes and we were running food," said Eric Heidenberger, who co-owns some restaurants in Delaware and D.C.

"Right now we are in a crisis," said Susan Jones, Executive Director of the Ocean City Hotel Motel Restaurant Association(OCHMRA).

"We have people who want to open up but they can’t open up because they know they can’t fill the positions and that primarily goes back to people collecting unemployment and they want to stay on the unemployment."

READ MORE: Montgomery County indoor dining resumes with restrictions

Jones said, the town usually has 12,000 seasonal job openings but not enough bodies.

She said that normally she get 4,000 J-1 students through the summer work program but this year the town is getting 2,000. 

Jones explained, it’s because all of the housing that historically goes to the students, sat empty last year so landlords ended up putting that housing into a weekly rental pool through Air B and B and Vrbo which she said was a little more lucrative for the landlords who have continued to keep that housing in this rental pool.

"We have always depended on college kids coming from across the bridge like from Pennsylvania and we have depended on the summer J-1 program as well which are international students who come from over seas for the cultural exchange program, so over the years we have had an influx of people for these seasonal positions," she said.

"But what I’m hearing from my restaurants right now, in this shoulder season is that this time the college kids are still in college and the typical J-1 summer travel kids don’t normally come until May."

Jones also said that the association has expressed its concerns to the Maryland Department of Labor about people who want to stay on unemployment and if the department could possibly place stricter parameters to make job hunting active again. 

Jones said the association has also partnered with a hospitality training organization that connects Marylanders with Maryland jobs and which is all about trying to eliminate the barriers to work, such as being able to afford temporary housing especially for students needing summer work.