‘We’re tired’: Worker shortage hitting Seward hard

A long line at Alaska Seafood Grill in Seward, Alaska. On the menu board, many items were...
A long line at Alaska Seafood Grill in Seward, Alaska. On the menu board, many items were unavailable Tuesday because keeping the restaurant supplied is proving difficult as well.(Taylor Clark)
Updated: Jul. 7, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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SEWARD, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s been a long summer so far in the town of Seward. There’s a lot of mixed emotions among local business owners who are once again faced with crowds of tourists ready to spend money.

On the one hand, they have a chance to make a lot of sales after a hard year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other, there are so few workers that it’s hard to keep up.

At the Alaska Seafood Grill, General Manager Paul Patino is one of the few seasonal workers in town. On Tuesday, they had to open the restaurant later than usual because three employees called out.

He said the worker shortage is pretty bad for them. However, many of the people who are applying aren’t quite up to the task of working in a tourist destination during the busiest time of the year.

Patino said he’s had to let go of people in that situation even though they need more workers so badly. The fact that many people were unemployed during the height of the pandemic isn’t helping at all, he said.

“If you’re not seasoned, and you haven’t been through something like this before, it can be extremely challenging and that’s all the applicants that we’re seeing right now,” Patino explained. “We’re not seeing people who have had years of experience on their resume. It’s people who probably haven’t had jobs in a while and/or haven’t worked like this at all for about a year.”

He said a recent hire didn’t last one day.

That’s because there are a lot of people visiting Seward and other towns like it these days. Patino said there’s a line at the door when the restaurant opens and it doesn’t go away until they close.

Most nights if they close at 10 p.m., he and the staff aren’t going home until at least after midnight, he said.

On top of having trouble getting workers in the restaurant, Patino said keeping the restaurant supplied is hard too due to supply shortages. On Tuesday, many of the items on the menu weren’t available.

It’s no better at the hotels, according to the manager of the Breeze Inn, Angela Duncan.

“I’m short staffed at my front desk, I’m short staffed in housekeeping, I’m short staffed in the kitchen, the restaurant,” she said.

And she’s counting herself lucky with the nine workers she’s hired from out of the country in town on J-1 visas. She said they usually get more like 15-20 of these kinds of employees. Duncan said she doesn’t know of many other places that have managed to actually get their workers through.

She’s also getting some slack picked up by employing local high school students. However, she’s worried about when they go back to school in August.

Duncan said they were hoping for more tourists, and were preparing to serve them the best they could.

“Maybe it wasn’t that we didn’t anticipate this many people,” she said. “It was that we didn’t anticipate the lack of help.”

Patino and Duncan both said that for the most part, the tourists and other customers understand. However, they said about 10% of them give the workers an attitude for long wait times and slow service. They ask that visitors pack their patience when going to Seward.

In general, it’s a new set of problems for the businesses in Seward and towns like it. Most are more happy with the problem of not having enough workers than not having enough customers. Still, it’s a lot to handle.

“They’re tired,” Duncan said of her employees, “My bartenders are working 15, 16 hours a day. My waitresses are working 15, 16 hours a day. We’re tired. Business is good. But we’re tired.”

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