Walk into any restaurant in downtown Minocqua or Eagle River, and chances are it’s understaffed.
“If you drive around town, you’ll see pretty much every business has a ‘We’re Hiring’ or ‘Need Help’ sign out there,” said Stephen Coon, whose family owns Coontail Market in Boulder Junction and stores across Northern Wisconsin.
Coon is struggling to find enough employees this season.
“It’s always hard just because of the nature of seasonal business, but this year seems especially hard,” he said. “Everything is way busier than it typically is, and being short staffed is not a good thing in that landscape.”
Coon is not alone; other local business owners across the Northwoods are in a similar position.
The U.S. government recently reported that employers added 266,000 jobs in April.
That’s a step in the right direction toward economic recovery, but those gains fell far short of what experts were predicting, especially in the hospitality and retail industries – where there are far more job openings than applicants.
At a time when unemployment is still high coming off the pandemic, local business owners are left wondering – why can’t they find enough workers?
To start, a worker shortage in the Northwoods is not new, said Mitch Rupp, a regional economist of North Central Wisconsin.
“Prior to the pandemic we had businesses having a difficult time finding workers, mainly due to our aging population,” he said. “As our older workforce retires and leaves the workforce, their positions need to be filled.”
However, now the challenge of replacing an aging workforce is compounded with the repercussions of COVID-19.
“This shortage has become a larger challenge for a variety of factors, such as people not wanting to do face-to-face jobs due to concerns about contracting COVID, difficulty finding childcare and other barriers to work that some people face,” Rupp said.
At the same time, some employers question the effects of the $300 federal unemployment supplement.
“The government needs to put people back to work by not paying them to stay home,” said Kathy Lass, the owner of Wolf Pack Café in St. Germain. “It’s the only solution I can find.”
Her concern is echoed by Republican lawmakers, like U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and Wisconsin representatives in the U.S. House, who are calling on Gov. Tony Evers to stop the enhanced benefits.
However, economists are not sure if slower job growth in April can be attributed entirely to pandemic-related benefits.
On one hand, if unemployment benefits are too high, that could lead to inflation, with businesses caught in a cycle of raising wages and prices.
On the other hand, if the government takes away unemployment benefits too soon, people still reeling from the effects of the pandemic – like mothers trying to find childcare – could suffer.
A premature cut could also lead people to stop spending, which could have further consequences on local businesses.
Regardless of why the worker shortage is happening, employers are stuck with the problem and they’re scrambling to find solutions.
Stephen Coon, for example, has tried offering a free golf outing to his employees, and his family just created a new bonus package to attract workers.
“Employees can earn up to $2,500 in bonuses just for summer work,” he said. “We’re just trying to think outside the box.”
Even after raising wages, some businesses, like Kathy Lass’s Wolf Pack Café, are still left shorthanded.
“I don’t know how we can maintain this without taking our business down to a level of what we can handle with the help that we do have,” she said. “If we only have half the employees that we normally would have, we can’t serve the people at the full capacity.”
For Lass, that could mean a 50 percent cut in revenue.
It’s a loss that might not disappear when the pandemic does.
“Time will tell how the future plays out,” Rupp said, “but the problem we’ve been having [with the aging workforce] will continue into the future and will really be our number one problem.”
Will time work in favor of businesses like the Wolf Pack Café, or against it?
“The world has changed,” Lass said. “I would hate to see the old-fashioned, full-service restaurant go down. I won’t go down without a fight.”