Businesses across the country have described an untenable hiring situation, with a dearth of applicants for thousands of vacant positions. And Bedford is no exception.
A wide range of local businesses reports grappling with a labor force that is not meeting demand.
Diane Cohen, owner of Minuteman Diner on The Great Road, said the recent climate has “definitely been the most challenging thus far. ‘Challenging’ is an understatement, and no matter where you go there is a ‘now hiring’ sign.”
“I have run continuous Indeed ads for hiring and not one experienced candidate has applied,” she continued. “If they are at all experienced, they want to be paid under the table or within the allowed hours to still collect unemployment.” She noted that the federal unemployment supplement expires at the end of next week, and then “people can apply and come back to work.”
“It’s so discouraging to make it through Covid and now not have the help we need to service customers,” Cohen continued. She said the diner is no longer open evenings because of a shortage of staff, and is only servicing five outdoor tables. Cohen pointed out that “when you’re down cooks, that has been the most challenging so far. There are no candidates applying for this industry’s jobs right now.”
“I need help” was the matter-of-fact response by Emma March, manager of the Paper Store in the Great Road Shopping Center. “I am actively looking for part-time sales associates, and I’m looking for managers.”
March said she thinks the paucity of candidates “has something to do with people being scared of contracting the virus. Working with the public is unpredictable.” She added that the store observes all the guidelines for safety promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The store manager said she also appreciates that “for mothers especially when you have kids at home you’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to have child care in summer. I definitely understand working around schedules; moms back in the workforce are a valuable asset. This place is conducive to a working mom’s schedule.”
“We’ve had challenges for over a year,” said Dante Riggio, owner of Riggio Auto Repair on The Great Road. “It’s actually getting worse. Two or three years ago, five, six, or seven people would apply. Last year we got one, maybe two. Now you don’t get anybody – especially for a skilled trade like mechanic.” Riggio said within a 20-mile radius “there are more than 500 technician jobs open.”
As a result, he continued, “we are all working more hours. I’m here late at night trying to get everything wrapped up. I don’t know where all the workers are going.” Riggio added, “I hate to tell a customer it’s going to be a week and a half. Luckily, most of my customers are very understanding.”
Sal Patel, manager of the Bedford Plaza Hotel on The Great Road, said he still needs help at the front desk. The housekeeping staff is in pretty good shape, he said; “we had a lot of trouble until the beginning of this month. I can still use one or two more part-time people.”
Patel, who said he uses several online job-search sites, described a hiring scenario of complete frustration. “There are people who look good on paper, I pay them even more than advertised — and they don’t show up. I had 42 applications for the front desk. I set up 12 interviews, eight agreed, and nobody came.” He said he and family members are working day and night to make up for it.
He blamed the situation on the extension of federal unemployment benefits. “They should have ended it six months ago.” Recipients of benefits are required to apply for jobs, he said.
At New England Nurseries on Concord Road, “we have a lot of different kinds of positions to fill, and it seems like across the board it has been very difficult,” commented Jae O’Rourke, manager of the business’s garden center. The challenge began before the pandemic, she said, and the coronavirus multiplied it.
The company’s “Help Wanted” signs along Route 62 “seem to bring us more applicants that are actually willing to work,” O’Rourke said. She suggested that a lot of the inquiries New England Nurseries received online represent “people throwing out applications everywhere.”
Carleton-Willard Village, the continuing care retirement community on Old Billerica Road, “is experiencing the same labor issues as other hospitality organizations,” said Barbara A. Doyle, CEO and president.
“Currently, our greatest need is evening wait staff,” she continued. “Historically, we have hired college and high school students beloved by the residents. We continue to work with Bedford High School, neighboring high schools, and Middlesex Community College offering referral and sign-on bonuses.”
Philip Poor, owner of Patriot Landscaping of Bedford, lamented, “After 27 years this is the worst.” He was talking about “trying to get people to come to work and get paid. Everybody seems like they’re on vacation.”
Poor said he has no doubt about the reason for the labor shortage: the federal unemployment benefit supplement: “Of course they’re not going to come to work — I don’t blame people for staying home.” Patriot has openings for half of its 12-member workforce, Poor said. Currently, he has eight resumes, of which “two sound promising.”
It has been a tough summer for landscapers, Poor testified. There was so much rain in July and much of August, “we needed all hands on deck to cut grass Monday through Friday, and nothing else gets done.” Many customers prefer not to have workers at their residences on weekend, he added. And even if the end of the unemployment benefit eases the hiring pool, the season will soon be winding down. “It’s a tough situation all around.”
Several businesses reported that they have filled all their openings. But as Orna Miles, general manager of Bedford Charter Service, put it, “We succeeded in our hiring goals – but only because I am working three times as hard at it.”
Miles said the workforce issues have permeated the entire transportation industry worldwide for years, including long-haul trucking, and “Covid just made it worse.”
Anticipating a challenging labor environment she began lining up candidates for school bus drivers last spring, with signs along the Railroad Avenue bus compound as well as through online services. “You have to be creative,” she said.
Bedford Charter employs 60 drivers, some of whom have worked for the company for more than 20 years, Miles said. “We consider ourselves as really lucky. The drivers are wonderful, considerate, hard-working, loyal, and they really fall in love with the kids and their families.”
Daisy Girifalco, proprietor of the Bedford Children’s Center on Concord Road, said she is operating with a full staff of 21 – but it wasn’t easy. “We were getting concerned and all of a sudden a couple of people came through for us,” she related. “We had offered a couple of jobs and they fell off the face of the earth. A lot of people don’t show up for interviews. How do you teach somebody common courtesy?”
Girifalco said she recognizes a lack of professionalism because she worked as a recruiter for almost 30 years. “It’s a matter of casting your net wide and getting really creative with hiring and offering referral bonuses – good people know good people,” she explained. “The key is being proactive and being creative.” Let friends and acquaintances know what you need, she added, because then “everyone is a recruiter.”
A manager at Lincoln Liquors in the Bedford Marketplace, who didn’t want to be named, said the store is fully staffed, although other outlets in the seven-store chain are still looking for help.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763