A shortage of workers?


A shortage of workers?

Here and there, competition for skilled employees sparks wage hikes

By Barbara Peters Smith

The whump-whump-whump of nail guns at yet another construction site in Sarasota County may not seem to have anything to do with the promptness of service at your favorite restaurant.

But it can — when two industries are in competition for the same workforce. After residential permits started to ramp back up in 2015, contractors seeking day laborers turned to an attractive local resource: restaurant employees who would readily appreciate the better wages. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, the average annual pay in construction is about $44,000 in Sarasota County, more than twice the rate for someone working in hospitality or food service.

For the Tableseide Restaurant Group, with about 400 employees at peak season, the obvious defensive move has been a salary hike.

“With all the construction, we’ve had to raise our rates in the kitchen by $2 an hour,” says Steve Seidensticker, founder of the operation that includes venues like Louies Modern, Libby’s, Muse, Oak & Stone, and a new joint venture developing in Newtown. “It really is good news; it’s good to see the standard of living become a livable wage.”

Father-and-son team, Steve Seidensticker with his son Joe Seidensticker, right, at Louies Modern, one of the many area restaurants they own. The Seidenstickers say they have had to raise wages to attract talented employees to their properties. (Herald-Tribune staff photo / Thomas Bender)

His son Joe Seidensticker, CEO of the family business, adds that kitchen assistants who made $13 to $15 an hour in 2008 — when the group opened Libby’s — are now earning $16 to $21.

“It was hard to keep some of our guys for anything less,” Joe says. “And with the influx of new restaurants, that’s affected us on the front end. There’s a decent talent pool in Sarasota, but that talent pool has been stretched to its breaking point.”

Available data on local wages shows a flatline after the Great Recession, while investment income has recovered nicely. But anecdotal evidence suggests that, in some sectors at least, Sarasota County’s latest growth spurt is having an effect on what employers are willing to pay their workers.

Mireya C. Eavey, Sarasota area president for United Way Suncoast, notices another trend nudging at salaries. Residents who move their businesses here from other parts of the country are offering more, she says, particularly in manufacturing.

“As new employers come into the market, then you start seeing that they’re coming in at a higher wage, and we are seeing in certain industries that if they want to recruit, they have to raise the wages,” she says. “An employer that maybe came from the Northeast, they’re paying two, three, four dollars or more” above the going rate.

Sous chef Mallory Lasser prepares prawns at Louies Modern in Sarasota. (Herald-Tribune staff photo / Thomas Bender)

Increasingly, the labor pool in Sarasota County is being replenished with new residents of Hispanic origin. Now comprising 10 percent of county residents, the Hispanic population is expected to account for 14 percent 30 years from now, with a corresponding drop in the share of non-Hispanic whites.

Tableseide’s workforce is 60 percent Hispanic, Steve Seidensticker estimates.

“They are fabulous. We’ve got families that have been with us from the start; they raised all their kids here,” he says. “I think diversity is really important to the vibrancy of the town. Just the fabric of the community is so much richer. The food’s better; the music’s better.”

Joe Seidensticker acknowledges that talk in Washington, D.C., about restricting immigration has unsettled his staff members.

“We had a lot of employees who were afraid to come to work, to be quite honest,” he says. “We had to talk everybody off the ledge and offer up our help and services. They want to stay; they want to keep coming. They’re a little less worried, but still worried about the repercussions every day. And I think that all this does have a big impact on tourism.”

For Joe Seidensticker — charged with keeping the restaurants and catering business going while his father focuses more on philanthropy — the need to attract and keep workers means that eventually, menu prices will have to edge upward. This will be tough to pull off, he believes, because diners since the recession are still clinging to a reliance on discounts, deals and happy hours.

“The customer’s not absorbing these costs at this point,” he says. “I would say that when I first moved to Sarasota as a young guy, I was amazed at how much people spent on dinner out. They were coming to Fred’s and spending a lot differently; they were looking for the most expensive bottle of champagne. In those days, the wrong concept could right its ship with just a few tweaks. Now, pennies matter in our business.”