For people who’ve been laid off during the pandemic, the extra $600 a week the federal government is doling out on top of unemployment is a godsend. But for restaurateurs and hotel owners around New England looking to staff up for the summer tourist season — what there is of it, anyway — the bump is anything but a blessing.
While some workers are turning down jobs because they’re worried about getting sick or infecting family members or because they don’t have child care, others are flat-out telling employers they’re making more money safe at home collecting unemployment.
The generous benefit has been problematic for businesses all over, but it is especially acute for seasonal employers looking to make new hires ahead of the summer.
Several business owners on the Cape are so desperate for bodies they’re increasing employees’ pay to what they would be making on unemployment, paying $900 for a cook who normally makes $600 a week, for instance, to match the regular state unemployment benefit ($300) plus stimulus payout ($600). Another employer is slipping workers cash under the table so they can continue collecting.
Offering to come in part time is also a popular workaround, business owners said, because, in addition to their wages, workers can still collect the extra $600 a week, as well as a reduced amount of state unemployment.
The $600 bonus lasts through the end of July, and some workers have said they’re willing to come back then.
But some markets and restaurants are open now, at least for takeout, and other businesses expect to be soon. In addition to longstanding problems hiring locals, many are facing the potential loss of thousands of foreign workers they rely on to make beds and prepare meals every summer. Faced with travel restrictions and visa problems, those workers are expected to arrive late — or not at all.
If House Democrats succeed in extending the $600 benefit until the end of the year, it could be devastating for employers.
“It’s a real dilemma,” said Bill Catania, president of Catania Hospitality Group, which typically employs 500 people year-round at its three Hearth 'n Kettle restaurants, Cape Codder Resort and Spa in Hyannis, and Dan’l Webster Inn & Spa in Sandwich. The company furloughed 70 percent of its staff but is looking to bring employees back as reopening looms.
"The majority are anxious to get back to work," Catania said. "But there is a certain element of people, between being concerned about their safety and [the fact that] they're pretty comfortable getting their two unemployment checks ... they're basically saying, 'Right now I'm making enough money, I'm in no rush.' "
“You can’t blame them,” he added. But, he said, “The longer this goes on and the more workers get used to not working, the less they want to come back to work.”
Employees can’t refuse to work simply because they’re collecting more money in unemployment benefits, according to the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance, although employment experts note this is difficult to enforce. Those who refuse to work because of COVID-19-related risks to their health and safety, however, may be able to keep collecting.
One restaurant owner said that when three kitchen workers asked to be paid off the books so they could keep collecting unemployment, his back was against the wall. So he did it. “It’s either that or shut the place down,” said the owner, who asked not to be identified. “All of us are going to do what we have to do in order to survive.”
At Sebasco Harbor Resort on the Maine coast, the $600 unemployment boost factored into the loss of a few key hires, including a dining room manager from Florida who was nervous about making the long trip north. For others, it’s simply about “making more money doing what they feel like doing,” said proprietor Bob Smith.
Poli Kostova, a waitress at Clancy’s Restaurant in Dennisport, which is open year-round, didn’t have any such dilemma when her boss asked her to come back to help with takeout. That’s because the owner offered to match what she was collecting. Kostova isn’t worried about getting sick because there are many protections in place and she’s only interacting with four other co-workers. She’s more worried about not being needed.
“My fear is that after you’re on unemployment, they don’t have to take you back,” she said.
Bill Zammer, who owns Clancy’s, along with the Flying Bridge Restaurant and the Red Horse Inn in Falmouth, is similarly subsidizing all 70 of the employees on the payroll. Still, he’s having a hard time finding housekeepers. “The workers don’t want to go into the rooms to clean because of the potential of someone being in there with COVID,” he said.
Zammer is hoping the 50 H-2B workers from Jamaica he typically employs will be able to come, though there currently are no regularly scheduled flights from there to the United States. Otherwise, he might not be able to fully open his hotel or restaurants. “The irony is that I’m going to be bringing in guest workers while I’ve got unemployed workers all over the Cape who don’t want to come to work because they’re getting paid more to stay home,” he said.
He understands the workers’ dilemma but is frustrated that the extra money is incentivizing them not to work. And he refuses to pay them under the table. “At my age, I’m not going to jail,” he said.
Robert and Jennifer Jarvis have about 75 people on the payroll preparing takeout seafood and pizza at the Pilot House Restaurant and Lounge in Sandwich and Bucatino Restaurant and Wine Bar and the Quarterdeck in Falmouth. If they could get 25 more, they’d be able to open all three for lunch, too. But it’s a tough sell.
"People don't want to lose their benefits, that's what they're saying to me: 'It's not worth it,' " said Jen Jarvis.
With all the extra tasks in the pandemic era — sanitizing, preparing takeout, bringing meals out to people’s cars, delivery — the Jarvises might end up needing the same number of people they normally do, even if there are fewer waitstaff and bartending jobs because of expected limits on capacity. And with uncertainty surrounding their usual crew of H-2B workers from Jamaica, their reliance on locals is greater than ever.
The Jarvises have bumped up everyone’s wages with “hero” pay and are paying some employees what they were making on unemployment “when we’re desperate,” Bob Jarvis said.
Bob Jarvis knows that working conditions these days can be far from ideal, and that goes beyond safety concerns. His restaurants don’t normally do delivery, or this volume of takeout, and the public can be unforgiving when things don’t go smoothly (see: the Mother’s Day incident at Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour in Mashpee).
"We've been getting yelled at since day one," he said. "Everybody's anxiety level is high."
Sous chef Greg Breault would like to go back to Bucatino’s in Falmouth, but he’s a single father of a 4-year-old and has no child care. He’s hoping his 60-something mother, who has diabetes, will be able to take care of his son, but he worries about getting them sick.
“I’m scared to death,” said Breault, 42, who is collecting about the same amount in unemployment that he makes on the job. “I don’t want my family to get exposed.”
Nauset Farms in East Orleans is so busy it could use 10 or 15 more workers immediately to open an extra day a week. But after several weeks of advertising for cashiers and line cooks to staff the market, bakery, butcher shop, and prepared foods department, the store has had only a handful of applicants.
Like other employers, general manager Frank Barbato understands why the unemployed aren’t clamoring for jobs. “I wouldn’t work. Would you work? I’d hang out until July,” he said. “If someone told me, ‘Hey, I’ll give you $800 or $900 to stay home,’ I tell you, I’d have the best tan around.”