Help wanted: Sonoma Valley businesses struggle to hire

Hospitality industry finds customers returning, but not enough staff.|

Like other business owners in the Sonoma Valley, the county and the country, Jordan Kivelstadt is seeing the return of customers and revenue as pandemic restrictions ease. There’s just one thing worrying him: Hiring.

Employers, especially those in the hospitality business, are having trouble recruiting. Fear of COVID-19 exposure, migration of workers to different industries and jobless benefits are oft-cited factors; additionally, specific to the county and the valley, a tight housing market and commute challenges figure in.

“It has been brutal. We spent $2,000 on ads and we still cannot get qualified applicants,” said Kivelstadt, who owns Kivelstadt Cellars Wine Garden & Eatery in Sonoma. “We advertised on Facebook, LinkedIn, Indeed and Wine Jobs. I used to get 50 to 80 applicants for a job pre-pandemic. Now I’m getting single digits.”

Sonoma County added 2,000 jobs between February 2021 and March 2021, a sign the economy is bouncing back. The sector with the second-greatest increase was hospitality, which added 500 new jobs, going from 16,500 people employed in February to 17,000 in March.

Similarly, private sector employment increased nationally by 517,000 jobs from February to March, according to the ADP Research Institute. Hospitality jobs were up by 169,000, and 25 percent of restaurant operators rated recruitment and retention of workforce as their “top challenge” in March, according to the National Restaurant Association.

“We have limited our reservations. We are turning away 100 people on a Saturday,” Kivelstadt said, of his Schellville restaurant.

Similarly, at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, “We are not able to accommodate all the requests for spa services on the weekend because we don’t have the personnel,” said hotel spokeswoman Michelle Heston.

“We are hiring for front desk, spa services, chefs, drivers, but applications are coming in slowly,” Heston said.

“In hospitality, since February or March, everyone’s had a huge influx in business with restrictions lightening up,” said Lauren Kershner, owner of Goodness Gracious Catering.

Business is so brisk, Kershner is opening a brick-and-mortar establishment, Songbird Parlour, in Glen Ellen. She said she is looking to hire five or six people, but is having trouble recruiting.

Marcy Garrett, front desk supervisor for The Cottage Inn and Spa in Sonoma, said, “Reservations are pouring in. The weekends are booked all the way into the summer months.” Garrett was elated at her luck at having just hired one person.

The reasons for the recruitment problem are myriad. Fear of COVID-19 exposure in public-facing jobs is a factor, though as more people are vaccinated, this will likely fade away, said Martin Gobbée, general manager of Taub Family Outpost, a restaurant and bar in Sonoma.

Also, “A lot of people have been collecting unemployment,” Kershner noted. This could make finding a job less pressing.

Reasons specific to the area include the notoriously tight housing market. Additionally, some people have given up looking for work, said Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler.

“Sonoma County lost 200 job-hunters between February and March 2021,” based on California Employment Development Department figures, Eyler said.

The Sonoma Valley is sparsely populated, giving employers fewer local residents to pick from, and commuting here can be challenging, said Mark Bodenhamer, chief executive of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Also, some employees left hospitality jobs seeking more dependable employment, Bodenhamer said.

Cody Moody, store director for Sonoma Market, said his venue hired former restaurant workers during the pandemic.

“They were looking for steady, reliable employment,” Moody said. “It’s great to have their people skills and culinary skills, because we have chef-prepared entrees in our kitchen and deli.”

Moody noted, “Grocery stores have been essential businesses throughout the pandemic and have not had to let people go or close stores.” He added, “We’re hiring at present,” but said it’s not difficult finding help.

While Sonoma Market hasn’t had difficulty hiring, another non-hospitality venue, the Sonoma Raceway, has encountered the problem.

The Raceway had to ban spectators during the pandemic, leading to lost revenue and layoffs, said spokeswoman Jennifer Imbimbo. As pandemic restrictions eased in February and March, the Raceway struggled to hire employees, but the difficulty has eased, Imbimbo said.

While Gobbée of Taub Family Outpost is having trouble recruiting, he noted, “It’s a good problem to have. Needing more staff is better than needing more customers.”

He added, “It would be great to find that balance when we can run on all cylinders.”

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