Scott Rutherford, owner of the Little Grille restaurants, simply cannot fill job openings.

He raised starting wages for new hires, offered $1,000 retention bonuses (after six months), and advertised management positions paying upwards of $75,000 a year.

And no one is applying.

“We can’t find anyone,” he said. “I’ve never been in this boat before.”

To compensate, Rutherford cut restaurant hours, and the remaining staff picked up the slack. Worried about burnout, he made the difficult decision to close Little Grille’s Woodsville location.

Those workers were reassigned to Little Grille’s remaining locations in Littleton and Bradford, and will allow those sites to operate without interruption.

Barely.

“Before COVID we had about 55 employees, now we’re down to around 30,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford is not alone. Employers across the Northeast Kingdom and North Country are short on help and desperate for applicants. They point to various root causes, such as enhanced unemployment benefits and COVID fears.

Like Little Grille, they have increased wages and offered cash bonuses, with little success.

Michelle Cate, branch manager of the Westaff hiring agency in Lyndonville, sought to fill over 350 positions at a recent job fair. Around 20 job seekers showed, 10 were placed.

Westaff serves businesses from Newport, Vt., to Lincoln, N.H., and Cate reported widespread strong demand for workers in various fields such as manufacturing, hospitality, accounting, and office administration.

“Our workforce needs are great,” Cate said. “We have clients [businesses contracting with Westaff] reaching out to us for multiple openings, and we have clients that were never clients before, that are now reaching out because they can’t find the help they are looking for.”

The issue has affected some of the region’s largest employers.

Katie McLean, Human Resources manager for NSA Industries, said the company’s four facilities in Lyndonville, St Johnsbury, and Northumberland, N.H., are looking to fill about 35 job openings, roughly twice the pre-COVID amount.

“It’s a continual struggle to get candidates to even interview at this point,” she said. “We tried everything across the board from sign-on bonuses, to retention bonuses, to increasing wages. We’re trying a little bit of everything.”

McLean said many applicants don’t show up for interviews or return calls. It reflects a job market where applicants have the advantage. The June unemployment rate was 2.9% in New Hampshire and 3.1% in Vermont.

The workforce shortage has made it tough for NSA to meet demand and fill orders.

“Ultimately our [overtime] costs are high and employee morale is low because people are working to get orders filled,” she said.

Amber Sheridan, spokesperson for Cabot Creamery, said the company has more than 50 active openings, the majority based at its Cabot campus.

Recently, the company instituted a $2,500 hiring bonus for second and third shift positions in Cabot.

“The labor market is very tight, and like many Vermont employers, we are feeling the labor shortage more acutely now than we have in several years,” Sheridan said, adding, “Processing our farmers milk is our top priority and the labor shortage has made that much more challenging.”

Rutherford has big plans for his remaining two Little Grille locations.

To realize those plans, he needs workers.

In order to retain his current staff, he has increased wages across the board and then closed the Woodsville location to alleviate staff shortages.

“If you want to go out there and find [new employees], you don’t want to destroy the ones you’ve got,” he said, adding that burnout was still a concern. A contributing factor has been customer behavior, perhaps a reflection of turbulent times. “I was worried the other day I was going to lose one of my managers because people are just so rude.”

Meanwhile, he will continue to search for new employees.

While state and federal COVID-relief funds, including the Paycheck Protection Program, were vital to keeping the Little Grille in business, Rutherford was quick to note that “money can’t get you people.” But a supportive atmosphere and a good workplace culture can, he said.

“It’s all about good employees working together and talking to others and bringing their friends in,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Rutherford is optimistic about the future. He expressed confidence in this staff and said the Little Grille will eventually find the help it needs. Until then, they will keep plugging away.

“The good thing is I have great people that work for me,” he said. “And what will happen is, we’ll regrow the business off our great people, and we will get new people in the future. It just takes time.”

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