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Sonoma County hospitality sector struggles to find workers despite high jobless rate

After the pandemic hit last March, Vintners Resort in Santa Rosa laid off nearly all of its roughly 200 employees as public health orders forced all nonessential businesses to temporarily close.

Over a year later, with coronavirus restrictions finally loosening and the local economy on the rebound, the resort still is struggling to recall or hire enough staff to maintain operations.

“I’ve never seen it so hard,” said Percy Brandon, Vintners general manager. “Now we have the opportunity to start doing business, but we’re unable to deliver full service because we don’t have the people to work.”

Many restaurants, hotels and other service businesses in the local hospitality industry are facing the same challenge finding workers, even as county unemployment remains relatively high.

“Businesses are having a very difficult time finding even the staff that was with them prepandeimc to come back,” said Claudia Vecchio, president of Sonoma County tourism.

Vintners now has about 50 full- and part-time workers on its payroll. Brandon is hoping to hire another 60 food servers, bus boys, front desk clerks, housekeepers and other employees ahead of the summer vacation season.

To keep the resort running, he’s asked his staff to take on additional responsibilities and clock extra hours.

“We are struggling, not a little, we are struggling a lot,” Brandon said.

In March, Sonoma County’s unemployment rate was 6%, a steep decline from the worst of the pandemic, but about double before COVID-19 sent the jobs markets into a tailspin. Despite the glut of available workers, the local hospitality industry employs 30% less people than a year ago, according to state data.

Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler said a number of factors are likely contributing to the staffing shortage in the hospitality sector. A main driver could be the federal unemployment benefits that have been extended into September, which may match or exceed what many hospitality workers can earn on the job.

Some workers also may fear contracting the coronavirus while interacting with the public, Eyler said. Others may have retired, are staying home to take care of family or have left the costly North Bay region altogether during the pandemic.

The result for business owners could be the need to raise wages, he said, just as they are starting to recover from a yearlong downturn.

“Businesses may have to, in the short term, share some of that (newly increasing) revenue to entice people back in work,” Eyler said.

Max Bell Alper, executive director for advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice, said many of the region’s service workers are nervous about putting themselves at risk of getting sick.

Alper said that Latinos, who make up a large a portion of the local hospitality industry, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and have had less access to coronavirus vaccines.

“This is a moment to make sure that all essential workers are able to feel confident to return to safe workplaces where they are treated with respect and can provide for their families,” he said.

Toraj Soltani, owner of Mac’s Deli and Cafe on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Rosa, doesn’t have enough workers to take full advantage of recently relaxed restrictions increasing indoor dining capacity to 50%. The new rules went into effect earlier this month as Sonoma County moved into the state’s less-restrictive orange reopening tier.

For now, Soltani is keeping the number of available tables inside the restaurant at about 25% of his dining space. Even with the state aiming to fully reopen by June 15, he’s unsure when he’ll have enough staff to return to business as usual.

“It’s going to be a big problem in the whole restaurant industry,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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