SARATOGA SPRINGS — The city and surrounding region stand on the brink of the 2021 Saratoga Race Course meet with heightened anticipation and a diminished workforce.
One of the signature events of summer in this part of New York starts Thursday with near-normal conditions after the highly modified 2020 season, which saw fans barred from the stands and restrictions imposed in the surrounding community because of the pandemic.
Those restrictions were mostly lifted by state officials a few weeks ago. Fans walking through the gate Thursday morning will see little out of the ordinary: No temperature checks; no masks required on vaccinated people; and no need to keep 6 feet apart. Crowds by the thousands can cheer elbow-to-elbow at the rail as the horses race past.
There’ll also be a chance to fill out an application and get hired.
Like employers across virtually all sectors of the economy, the New York Racing Association hasn’t been able to hire as many people as it wants and needs. The normal workforce at the summer meet — full and part time, seasonal and permanent — is roughly 2,300 people.
Only about 75% of that total were on board at the middle of this past week, prompting NYRA and its vendors to hold the first-ever series of pop-up job fairs at the track July 7-14.
“We’re certainly not immune to the labor shortage that has impacted businesses across upstate New York and across the country,” NYRA spokesman Pat McKenna said.
(Another huge seasonal employer in the region, Great Escape Resort near Lake George, also held a last-minute job fair recently, and dropped its ban on piercings, tattoos and unique hairstyles.)
Compounding the labor shortage, hiring and other preparations for the meet are being made in a condensed time frame because the guidance on how NYRA would be allowed to operate Saratoga Race Course was issued late in the process, then was changed.
NYRA has a big job fair each “normal” year and then continues hiring people in smaller numbers right up to and even beyond opening day, McKenna said. The job fair went off as usual in 2021, but afterward the positions remaining to be filled were more numerous than in past years.
To avert staffing problems on the back end — the meet ends on Labor Day, and students often want to depart before then — NYRA is offering retention bonuses of up to $500 for those who stay through closing day. This is another first for the organization.
Race fans shouldn’t be able to notice any shortage of employees, McKenna said, because public-facing workers can be rotated through to fill gaps and maintain levels of service.
“I think if the pandemic has taught us anything, the ability to be nimble, to make adjustments on the fly is critical,” he added.
Across Saratoga Springs and the surrounding region, the tourism/restaurant/hospitality industry that relies so heavily on the summer season is in a similar situation: Strong consumer interest in summer 2021, weak interest in job postings.
“The labor shortage is the most concerning it’s been in years, maybe ever,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. “Not just hospitality but every sector of our economy, from entry-level to skilled professions. Law firms, CPA firms, GlobalFoundries, the hospital, every restaurant, every hotel, everybody’s looking.
“Everybody’s finding ways to adapt, the way they have for the last 18 months.”
Sometimes that just means longer hours.
“The labor market is certainly tight here as it is elsewhere, but our dedicated associates have stepped up and volunteered to work more hours to provide great service for our guests,” said Glen White, spokesman for Delaware North, which operates the Gideon Putnam in Saratoga Spa State Park.
“We’ve seen bookings increase as we’ve entered the summer,” he said. “The Saratoga Springs market is now very strong, and with the opening of Saratoga Race Course next week we anticipate the next two months will be very busy.”
Hattie’s Restaurant co-owner Beth Alexander said she’d like to add Sunday evening hours and be able to serve dinner five days a week but she doesn’t have the staff to do it and doesn’t think that will change this summer.
“It’s been a struggle this year finding people,” she said. “NYRA having that second job fair speaks volumes.”
Alexander added: “We’re fortunate because we have a lot of longtime employees who stayed with us,” and some former employees who returned.
“We also have depended on our 15-year-old son. We’ve hired quite a few of his friends.”
The teens are busing tables, washing dishes and learning to cook, but aren’t ready for the top jobs in the kitchen or dining room.
“The hard thing is chefs, assistant chefs, waiters,” Alexander said.
Nonetheless, she added, it’s nice to see the city bounce back from the pandemic for a vibrant and busy summer.
Ryan McFadden, co-owner of Flatbread Social and Henry Street Taproom, said customer traffic is back to normal but he expects to see a huge bump when the horse track opens.
“I think people are itching to get out,” he explained.
The operation is a bit short-staffed and the taproom is closed two days a week instead of one as a result. McFadden said he’s not optimistic about hiring.
Discover Saratoga President Darryl Leggieri said the labor shortage, while widespread, is stressful but not crippling: “A lot of our small businesses, our restaurants, our hotels, are doing more with less in staffing.”
The year 2021 is showing a strong rebound, he said. “It’s certainly an exciting time for us. A lot of our hotels are seeing strong occupancy.”
Even better, that doesn’t end after Labor Day, Leggieri added: There’s significant interest in siting conventions and meetings in Saratoga into the autumn.
In 2019, attendance at the race course exceeded 1 million and money bet on its races exceeded $700 million across all channels.
NYRA cites an estimated $240 million benefit to the region’s economy stemming from the Saratoga meet, McKenna said, but as an institution it also carries a value beyond money.
“It’s such a part of the fabric of life for racing fans across the country,” McKenna said, adding that unprecedented levels of advance ticket sales show the enthusiasm is undiminished.
Shimkus said the inevitable result of high demand and limited workforce calls for patience on the part of the public.
“Everyone’s trying to find the best way to succeed without burning out,” he said. “I hope people enjoy the time together they have this year and pay less attention to the time it might take to get through the line in the store, or to get that drink, or that Uber ride.
“Be respectful. The people who are working are working harder than ever.”