The wave of omicron sweeping the country is worsening widespread staff shortages at restaurants, cafes, hotels and wineries across the Inland Empire as waves of employees call in sick.
Absences, due to coronavirus infections as well as seasonal flu and colds, lead to closures, shortened hours and reduced services.
Benita Bratton, owner of Gram’s BBQ Restaurant and Catering in downtown Riverside, closed her dining room on Wednesday, Jan. 12, after a waitress and dishwasher – from her staff of 12 – fell ill.
“We’ve had a lot of people with the omicron,” Bratton said. “Right now it’s so prevalent that I want to protect my staff and my business.”
Bratton worries that if she were to continue to offer indoor dining, as people take off masks to eat, several other employees could get sick and force her to shut down completely.
“We’re hanging on by just a little thread,” she said.
She plans to offer outdoor dining only “until things get better”.
There have been other closures. For example, the interior of a Starbucks coffee shop in Ontario was seen closed on Thursday, January 13, when the drive-thru lane was open.
On Sunday, January 9, a Pomona Starbucks known for its busy drive-thru was completely closed – as was the dining room. A sign announced new limited hours.
“When a store experiences a temporary staff shortage, we respond by reducing hours” to prevent employee overwork, Starbucks spokeswoman Abby Wadeson wrote in an email Friday, Jan. 14.
Those decisions are made locally, Wadeson said.
Inland Empire economist John Husing said soaring worker absences were exacerbating a staff shortage that employers had been grappling with for much of the pandemic.
It’s impossible to miss the “help wanted” signs, which Husing says are “absolutely everywhere”.
“I don’t remember a period in my 50-plus years of tracking this stuff like that,” he said.
Restaurants, small retail stores and hotels are all struggling to fill positions, Husing said. The same goes for warehouses and trucking companies.
“Every truck, on the back of it, has a ‘Help Wanted’ sign,” he said.
The sharp increase in employee absences comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to climb in Southern California, reaching 4,257 in Los Angeles County, 1,107 in San Bernardino County and 991 in California County. Riverside as of Thursday, Jan. 13, according to state data.
Earlier in the week, Riverside County Director of Public Health Kim Saruwatari reported that while the particularly contagious omicron variant is spreading rapidly everywhere, it is infecting people in Riverside County even faster than in the county. entire state. The higher infection rate may be partly due to the types of businesses prevalent in the county, she said.
“We have a lot of hospitality industry – a lot of people-to-people interactions,” Saruwatari said.
Recognizing this close interaction and responding to an increase in worker illnesses, Residence Inn by Marriott Ontario Rancho Cucamonga has reduced room cleaning from daily to twice a week, said Ivonne Sarmiento-Hernandez, hotel sales manager. of 126 rooms.
The hotel is also encouraging visitors to do mobile check-in to avoid direct contact with front desk workers, she said.
“For the most part people have been very understanding,” she said.
“I just came back to work yesterday (Thursday) after being sick for a week and a half,” with COVID-19, Sarmiento-Hernandez said.
“At this point we still have three fewer people” out of a staff of 22, she said. “It seems to be going in waves.”
Two of the three absentees are part of the home team, Sarmiento-Hernandez said. Previously, several housekeeping employees went out at the same time.
The timing of the spike in absences has sometimes been happy and sometimes disastrous.
Fortunately, said BJ Fazeli, president and founder of Fazeli Cellars Winery in the Temecula area, the flow of employees calling in sick is happening during a slow January period following the busy holiday season. The winery was able to cover their shifts.
“If it had happened in early December, we would have had a lot of problems,” Fazeli said.
For Leone Palagi, owner and executive chef of downtown restaurant Riverside Mario’s Place, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
On Dec. 26 — Boxing Day — half a dozen waiters and waitresses out of a staff of 45 tested positive for coronavirus, Palagi said. The next day, a cook caught the virus.
Palagi closed the restaurant on December 28 and kept it closed all week, including on New Year’s Eve, when up to 300 people have flocked to the restaurant in the past.
“It was like slamming on the brakes instead of coming to a slow, controlled stop,” he said.
Palagi and a few employees got together to offer takeout for three hours on New Year’s Eve. But when faced with the omicron tip, he said he couldn’t in good conscience open the dining room.
“It just didn’t seem like the night to throw a big party and celebrate,” he said.
In Redlands, Olive Avenue Market owners Sonya Rozzi and Missy Van Zeyl rushed to cover three absent employees last week.
“Missy and I went back to the kitchen, like we did when we first opened,” Rozzi said. “You do what you have to when it’s a small business.”
Even so, she said, the market couldn’t sell many baked goods “because our baker was gone.”
The absences have stressed other employees working overtime, Rozzi said.
“It’s been a trying week and a half,” she said.
In Lake Elsinore, many restaurants along the downtown Main Street Corridor say, “Sorry for the delay in serving you, we have limited staff,” said Kim Joseph Cousins, President and CEO. of the Lake Elsinore Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The cousins said the surge came as beloved restaurant Vincenzo’s Olive Tree – a Lake Elsinore ‘institution’ – struggled to find enough cooks and workers. The restaurant closed in December, he said. According to a social media post, the restaurant plans to reopen for takeout only on Tuesday, January 25, and open its dining room in February.
Despite the challenges, there may be a silver lining to omicron’s surge, said Mario’s Place owner Palagi.
“It peaked almost vertically,” Palagi said.
Perhaps, he said, the surge — and accompanying worker absences — will lessen just as quickly.
Writer David Allen contributed to this report.