Block Island businesses enduring foreign worker shortage

THE HOSPITALITY industry on Block Island is coping with a reduced foreign workforce this season. Above, a server working at Dead Eye Dicks on Block Island on July 15, 2020. / COURTESY JESSICA WRONOWSKI

NEW SHOREHAM They come from all over the globe, descending on Block Island where they work in restaurants, bars, and retail operations, while enjoying what the island has to offer during the summer tourist season. That will be different this year.

Just like other resort communities, which rely on a robust summer tourism season, foreign workers will not be working on Block Island as they have done in previous years. Part of the reason for a reduced foreign workforce is the restrictions placed on international travel, as well as challenges created by safety protocols.

What that means is that some island businesses will be short-staffed this summer, causing issues for proprietors with the running of their operations. Foreign student workers are helpful to businesses because they fill an assortment of roles and work later into the shoulder season, whereas domestic student workers tend to depart earlier, returning to school in August and September.

“Last year we had 270 J-1 visa student workers. This year we have none,” said Bill Penn, president of the Block Island Residents Association who helps assist with the Student Work Travel program every summer at the Harbor Church, which provides resources to the students.

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“Island businesses are scrambling for help,” said Penn. “The lack of J-1 student workers is directly related to the Trump Administration shutdown. Those few students on the island made it before the shutdown. So far there has been no interest in the International Student Center, a home away from home at the Harbor Church. Accordingly, we have shut it down for the summer.”

“Staffing has been extremely difficult this year,” said Jessica Wronowski, owner, and operator of two restaurants on the island: Dead Eye Dick’s in New Harbor and Finn’s restaurant in Old Harbor, who noted that, “There are not enough American applicants, even for our skilled jobs, let alone the less-skilled support jobs. At one of our restaurants, we’ve had to close one day per week in order to keep overtime down and give everyone a day off.”

A returning employee of Finn’s restaurant tested positive for COVID on Sunday, July 5, causing Wronowski to close the establishment for two weeks.

Wronowski said that “five J-1 students started last week, which has been a relief.” Although, before the pandemic she hired 22 J-1 students who had been slated to begin working in May and June.

“These workers usually fill support rolls for us in the front of the house, such as busser, host, food runner, barback, and work jobs like prep cook and dishwasher in the back of house,” she explained. “Without them, we have had to reduce the size of our menus to be able to prep with a much smaller crew, and we have switched certain dishes and glassware to disposable to take the weight off the dishwashers we do have on staff. Our front of house is now in an all-hands-on-deck situation with very little support staff. As a result, we have moved to a tip pool model to facilitate everyone helping each other. The pace of the restaurant has slowed, as we are not able to turn tables as quickly without a large support staff, especially with the additional cleaning steps required in the age of coronavirus.”

Brad Marthens, who owns and operates The Atlantic Inn with his wife, Anne, said it has been “nuts” running his business this year. “The impact is that we are having to kill ourselves with overtime. There is not enough staff to do the normal daily stuff, but we are getting by because so many people are willing to do other jobs. Anne and I, and our managers, are doing a lot of things we do not normally do. We are dishwashing, and fogging rooms, something we had to buy and do because of COVID.”

Marthens said he has had to turn to “friends and former employees that are willing to help and do things. Plus, to do things correctly with the state regarding state quarantines, we now have to call all out of state guests” from those states on the quarantine list. “Often, they will cancel their reservation and we cannot charge a fee like normal, because it is out of their and our control. We also had to cancel a wedding this past weekend because they were from Pennsylvania.”

Julie Fuller, general manager of The National Hotel on Water Street in Old Harbor, said she had hoped to hire foreign workers this summer season, but that will not be happening now.

“This year I was expecting eight, and unfortunately, I do not have any of them,” she said. “Some of them were repeat employees, so we certainly miss them as they were great employees.” She noted that her establishment does “not typically rely on foreign students for the summer.”

“We have been able to hire enough staff,” said Fuller, “but it is the departments, such as morning cleaning crew and dishwashing that there is a shortage of people looking for part-time jobs. That is really the only area that has suffered because there are not enough people looking for second jobs or are willing to do that kind of work.”

Cassius Shuman is a staff writer and researcher at PBN. You may reach him at Shuman@PBN.com.

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