Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, Summer 2021

A city of Salem initiative aims to help local businesses attract workers.

Many restaurants, bars and other hospitality venues in some of Massachusetts’ most popular tourist destinations are having a hard time staffing up, creating frustration for customers and business owners alike.

In late spring, despite loosening COVID-19 restrictions, innkeepers and restaurateurs on Cape Cod reported being unable to fill jobs that are typically snapped up by seasonal foreign workers (blocked, still, by travel restrictions). Similar stories have been playing out in other hospitality-driven economies over the spring and summer.

Factors cited for the dearth of job applicants include a federal $300-per-week bonus for Massachusetts unemployment recipients that continues into September and a general shift in people’s relationship to work, sparked by the pandemic. WBUR reported recently that more than 4 million Americans quit their jobs in April, putting vacancies at a 20-year high.

On the eve of the July 4 weekend, Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, told the Salem News, “I don’t know of a restaurant right now that isn’t looking for workers. They’re scaling back hours and limiting seating because they can’t find enough staff.”

Such is the case in Salem, a tourist destination in summer and through the fall, culminating in Haunted Happenings and Halloween festivities.

Between some former employees needing to care for children and relatives and others for whom the pandemic spurred career changes, Claire Kallelis said staffing has been a challenge at Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel, where she is the general manager. Recently, though, she has added several people to the iconic hotel’s hospitality staff through a new city program that sweetens the pot for new hires.

On July 7, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll announced a partnership with the MassHire North Shore Career Center to provide up to $800 in VISA gift cards for eligible employees who fill openings with qualified Salem businesses. The Salem Hospitality Employee Incentive Program is limited to the first 150 enrollees for jobs at Salem restaurants, hotels, attractions, and small retailers with fewer than 25 employees.

As of mid-July, Salem’s program had so far connected 58 people with jobs at 36 locations, according to MassHire.

“I think it’s fabulous,” Kallelis said. “Any way of enticing people to come back into the hospitality industry, or to try it for the first time … I think it’s great.”

Employees who work at least 15 hours per week and stay on the job for six weeks can earn $400 in VISA gift cards through the program, with an additional $400 in gift cards for staying past Oct. 31. Eligible applicants cannot be currently enrolled in another MassHire program or employed at a Salem hospitality business immediately prior to accepting a new position, and must be earning less than $70,750 annually. Eligible people hired into a qualifying position between June 1 (before the program launched) and July 23, can enroll at or, in Spanish, at Enrollment ends Aug. 20.

“Just about everywhere you look there is a ‘Help Wanted’ sign, or a ‘Please be patient, we are short-staffed’ message,” Driscoll wrote in a post on the city’s Facebook page. “With the post-pandemic economy roaring back to life in Salem, we are hoping to coax residents in Salem and the region into the workforce to assist our many small businesses in need of an extra set of hands during the busy Summer and Fall seasons.”

Mary Sarris, Director of the MassHire North Shore Career Center, said she doesn’t know of any other municipalities offering similar initiatives. She urged people to take advantage of Salem’s hiring program “and enjoy employment opportunities during this exciting economic recovery.”

For more information, call MassHire at 978-825-7000, or visit the agency at 70 Washington St. in Salem, Monday through Thursday, 1-3 p.m.

Written by Lisa Capone