In the Press

Steps needed to save Rhode Island’s summer (Op-Ed, Providence Journal)

Paolino Properties’ Managing Partner, Joseph R. Paolino Jr., was featured in a recent op-ed published in the Providence Journal regarding steps that should be taken to ensure that there are enough hospitality workers in Rhode Island to fill jobs throughout the crucial upcoming summer season.

Read the full story below:

Joseph R. Paolino Jr. served as mayor of Providence from 1984-1991 and was director of the Rhode Island Department of Economic Development from 1991-1994. He is currently managing partner at Paolino Properties.

It may seem early to start talking about the summer tourism season here in Rhode Island just as the flowers have finally started blooming. However, if we don’t do something drastic — and quickly — about an enormous problem within our hospitality industry, it may be too late to prevent severe consequences.

For Rhode Island, which relies greatly on its hospitality and tourism industries, the pandemic has been particularly devastating. Thousands of people have been laid off, many restaurants have closed and hotels remain largely empty.

Thanks to President Biden and our Congressional representatives, we have billions of dollars in necessary relief pouring into our communities. Thanks to the efforts of Governor McKee and our local health-care professionals and volunteers, we have over 31 percent of our residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — the fifth highest vaccination rate in the country, according to the CDC — and more vaccinations happening every day.

But despite these victories, our economic success this summer depends on being able to solve a complicated challenge: How do we get people to go back to work in hospitality industry jobs?

I’ve heard numerous people talk about this problem, whether it’s David Levesque from Brewed Awakenings or Paul O’Reilly, CEO and president of the Newport Restaurant Group. They have jobs available, but nobody seems willing to work them. This is not just a Rhode Island issue, either. It’s happening in New York, Miami, Montana and everywhere in between.

There are numerous reasons this is happening, but I believe we cannot understate the effect that the additional $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits is having. If a person can earn more money staying at home rather than going into work each day, what incentive do they have to work? While these supplemental benefits are set to expire in September, that is too late to salvage our summer season.

Another reason is likely the fear of contracting COVID-19, which I can certainly understand. Workers in hospitality jobs face an increased risk of contracting the virus, so it’s only fair that we prioritize them for vaccines as we have prioritized health-care workers and senior citizens. With President Biden decreasing the age limit for vaccine eligibility to 16, I am optimistic that we will see more young people willing to take these jobs once they know they are protected.

But we must do more — and think outside the box to figure out new ways to energize and encourage a new work force to join our hospitality industry. We should be working with our local high schools and universities — Johnson & Wales, Salve Regina, etc. — to host numerous job fairs and create a pipeline from graduation directly into these in-demand jobs. Universities may be able to provide housing during the summer to take financial pressure off these essential workers and encourage them to stay in the state.

A similar concept already exists in Maryland, where they’ve started the “Connecting Marylanders with Maryland Jobs” program — a public/private partnership that connects recent graduates and those looking for work with tourism and hospitality jobs. That program also provides housing. Our own Department of Labor and Training and Commerce Department can spearhead a similar effort here in Rhode Island to recruit recent graduates, retirees and teachers looking for summer work.

This is just one approach to address this issue, but we must start solving this problem now – not later. Time is running out before we start getting dissatisfied tourists who are unable to enjoy a meal on Block Island or in Newport — a shockwave that will spread to other parts of our state and result in millions of dollars in lost revenue.

That is a consequence we cannot afford as we attempt to recover from this pandemic.

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