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With restrictions lifted early, summer hiring scramble intensifies

Brewster Fish House server Erin Gallagher, of Orleans.
Brewster Fish House server Erin Gallagher, of Orleans.Julia Cumes/For The Boston Globe

Governor Charlie Baker hadn’t even finished announcing that he was lifting the state’s COVID-related restrictions when an e-mail with the subject line “Yay!!!!!!” landed in Bill Doane’s inbox. It was from an “overanxious bride,” said Doane, director of sales for catering company MAX Ultimate Food, who has a wedding booked at the Museum of Science and wanted to talk about adding people to the guest list.

And the messages from eager clients kept coming.

The problem is, like many employers, MAX Ultimate Food had already been struggling to find enough workers for what was expected to be a scaled-back summer, with restrictions not fully lifted until August.

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But now, with capacity limits being dropped at the end of May, the catering company will likely need even more servers, bussers, and bartenders than anticipated, and Doane isn’t exactly sure where the 120 or so new employees the company needs are going to come from — especially now that so many other businesses are suddenly scrambling to staff up, too.

“I’m excited about this new normal, as much as it’s going to make my life crazy,” Doane said. “These are good problems to have.”

Employers across the country are having more difficulty than usual finding workers this year, as generous unemployment benefits and COVID safety concerns have kept some people on the sidelines, especially in the hospitality industry. Others have decided to get out of the field altogether, fed up with unpredictable schedules, late nights, and low wages. And now that Massachusetts is doing away with capacity restrictions for businesses and gatherings two months earlier than expected, short-staffed employers are eyeing their job openings with even greater trepidation. Some plan to keep limited tables or reduced hours of operation in place until they can find more workers.

Facilities that previously weren’t scheduled to reopen until Aug. 1, including nightclubs, indoor water parks, and ball pits, will now suddenly be permitted to open their doors. But the accelerated launch could put those employers at a disadvantage compared to those that have been operating in a limited capacity and actively trying to recruit workers as summer approaches.

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After hearing the news Monday, Great Wolf Lodge, the indoor water park chain, is trying to establish a reopening date and just started reaching out to its nearly 700 furloughed workers in Fitchburg, said communications director Jason Lasecki. Lasecki knows the hospitality industry is struggling and anticipates the company will have to hold job fairs to fill the gaps, but, based on the communication the water park has had with employees throughout the pandemic, he’s confident many will return.

“They’ve clearly probably had to get another job somewhere else because we’ve been closed for so long, but a good number of them are interested in coming back,” Lasecki said.

At Webber Restaurant Group, which operates a catering company, a farm, and five restaurants, including the Scarlet Oak Tavern in Hingham, the lifting of limits potentially means more diners, more corporate clients holding clam bakes on Crane Beach, more open bars and cocktail hours at wedding receptions — and more than 250 new hires to accommodate all this potential new business.

The Bancroft in Burlington is currently closed for lunch due to staffing shortages, and the Grill at Great Marsh Brewing Co. in Essex is closed Mondays and Tuesdays for the same reason. Getting fully reopened is “a big hurdle,” said human resources director Nicole Green, and the hundreds of chairs, tables, and barstools the restaurant group put in storage during the pandemic can’t go back into use until more people are on the job: “We don’t want to add more tables and give poor service.”

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The competition for workers was already fierce, Green said, noting that the job site Indeed added 115 new positions for cooks within 25 miles of Burlington last week. Webber has evaluated its wages, but with cooks making $15-$30 an hour and servers averaging $30-$40 an hour with tips, pay is already competitive, she said. The company is expanding its referral bonus, however, offering $1,000 for any staff member who can find a manager; $500 for a server, bartender, cook, or host; and $250 for a dishwasher, busser, or food runner.

The frequent rules adjustments over the past year make Green think of an episode of the TV show “Friends” when Ross, Rachel, and Chandler are moving a couch up a stairwell and Ross keeps yelling “pivot!” as they round a corner. “We’ve been at the corner of the stairs getting ready to pivot all of the time,” Green said. “Something new always gets thrown in our direction.”

The lifting of COVID restrictions puts Massachusetts in line with other states in New England, sparking a regional hiring spree as businesses race to get back to full capacity. In New Hampshire, where restrictions were lifted May 7, Canobie Lake Park amusement park is having so much trouble finding workers that it’s planning to be open just five days a week instead of the usual seven starting in mid-June, and closing at 6 p.m. instead of 10. As demand and staff increase, the park plans to adjust accordingly, said brand manager Chris Nicoli.

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Trillium Brewing Co. is also planning to keep its restaurants in Canton and Fort Point closed two days a week — Monday and Tuesday — due to staffing shortages, though beer will be available to go every day. Even if Trillium is able to find the 50 to 75 workers it needs to fully reopen all its locations, the lack of office workers in Fort Point may keep operations limited there over the summer, possibly with just a skeleton crew early in the week, said Ryan Shocklee, vice president of operations.

Trillium recently doubled its referral bonus to $200 for existing employees who bring in new workers. The company isn’t currently considering raising wages to attract more workers, noting that line cooks make a competitive $14-$22 an hour, but is open to it if necessary. Employees also get medical, vision, and dental insurance, a 401(k) plan, tuition reimbursement, and free beer.

“It’s been a very complicated year,” Shocklee said. “It’s very hard to predict anything.”

Summer hiring has long been an issue on the Cape, where affordable housing is in short supply, but with COVID-related visa delays holding up foreign workers and a record number of visitors expected, finding workers is more of a crunch than usual. Earlier this spring, Chatham Bars Inn started leaving recruiting cards for servers at local restaurants that read, “I’m impressed!,” with promises of a $250 signing bonus and $250 end-of-season bonus. In late April, one of the owners at Brax Landing in Harwich Port posted a photo of one online, writing, “They handed one of my servers this card. Class move. Go to a place, pick out top servers, and try [to] take them.”

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After an outcry, Chatham Bars Inn wrote a message on its Facebook page noting that many Cape residents have more than one job: “As part of our recruiting efforts, we encourage anyone in the local area to apply with us for a second job to boost their income. (It has come to our attention that the message on our recruiting cards may have been misconstrued.)”

Chatham Bars Inn did not respond to requests for comment.

Brax Landing co-owner Tad Peavey said his restaurant can’t afford to match the bonuses being offered by the high-end resort, but he hasn’t lost any employees to the recruiting effort. Peavey said he’s always worried about finding enough employees, but he’s grateful to have his doors open after a year in which nearly a quarter of the state’s restaurants have closed permanently: “People are so fed up with this that everybody will have a good summer that survived.”

Anissa Gardizy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.