On the Champlain Islands, staffing shortage is still an issue for many hotels

Mark and Kathy Infante, owners of the Ruthcliffe Lodge and Restaurant in Isle La Motte, are struggling to find employees. Seen on Friday, June 11, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Mark Infante has owned Ruthcliffe Lodge, a six-room inn on Isle La Motte, for almost four decades. But this year, he said, it’s been harder to find staff than ever before.

“We’ve run ad, after ad, after ad. We’ve called so many places and so many people we know,” Infante said. “And we just can’t find people. Nobody wants to work.”

Hotel owners on the Lake Champlain islands have had little trouble booking rooms this summer, with some saying they expect record numbers of guests.

But many owners still are struggling to find, for instance, line cooks and housekeepers — an issue complicating their return to business more than a year into the pandemic.

Brian Dye, general manager of Apple Island Resort in South Hero, said the resort has had better luck hiring staff than other businesses in the area, but still has some unfilled jobs. Still, he said, the place will be “pretty full” this season.

“Everyone’s looking for some kind of help,” Dye said.

Summer worker shortages have been reported nationwide this year, a trend some experts have pegged on career changes and international travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic. 

Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation last week extending a state program that offers financial reimbursements to people who move to Vermont for a job — starting July 1, grants of up to $5,000 will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. 

New Vermonters from areas with high unemployment rates or low wages could receive up to $7,500. Critics, though, have challenged the efficacy of the program, and the new law calls for a study to see if it actually accomplishes its goal.

Busy summer expected

Still, “the mood is optimism” in Grand Isle County heading into the summer, said Andy Julow, executive director of the Lake Champlain Islands Economic Development Corp.

Several local institutions, including Hero’s Welcome General Store and Shore Acres Inn and Restaurant in North Hero, have bolstered their services under new ownership and may help draw visitors back, he said.

Marc Lamphier runs the Ferry Watch Inn, a hotel and wedding venue in Grand Isle. He said the hospitality industry was “kind of written off” during the pandemic, but his place now has only a few openings left for events. 

The owners of the Ruthcliffe Lodge and Restaurant in Isle Lamotte are struggling to find employees. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“The lodging is booked solid for the summer, and weddings have been a lot busier than expected, for sure,” Lamphier said.

At Shore Acres, General Manager Jason Hanny said the number of guests this summer will be “way, way up” over previous years. The inn has plans to build — and demand for — a lakeside bar, but has so far been unable to hire staff for it. 

“I’m surprised at how few inquiries I have,” Hanny said. “People say they want to work, but they don’t come to the table going: ‘OK, I’m here, I’m ready to go.’” 

Infante, of Ruthcliffe Lodge, said his adjoining Italian restaurant has been packed but may have to run at reduced capacity this summer unless he can hire more staff. 

“We need the combination of both to make a living,” he said. 

On the border

Many local businesses also need visitors from across the northern border, said Julow, of the Islands Economic Development Corp. For instance, he said, Canadians dock their boats at local marinas and camp at local campgrounds.

Vermont’s congressional delegation sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday, urging that he work with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to expand cross-border travel. 

“Small businesses in both Canada and the United States have struggled to stay afloat as regular cross-border travel has all but disappeared,” the delegation wrote in the letter. “Vermont businesses throughout the state that have long relied on tourism and activity from our Canadian neighbors have been particularly harmed.”
Politico has reported that the Canadian government is considering loosening restrictions on June 22.

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