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Workers in short supply amid year of great job growth

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With record job growth in Oregon, Whitney Keatman never imagined she would have problems finding workers for her Scott Street location of Sparrow Bakery in Bend.

And she didn’t. It was getting them to stay that has plagued her long time Bend business.

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{photoSource}Bend Bulletin{/photoSource}

In the past year Keatman, a co-owner, made 117 job offers and most were accepted. But after just three months, only about 42 workers remained. The bakery needed a minimum of 20 workers at the Scott Street location and by the end of this summer there were six.

So last week, she made a hard decision: She will close the bakery at the Old Iron Works Arts District.

“We’ve been struggling for seven years with moments of success,” Keatman said. “Over the years we’ve had on again and off again good managers. When you don’t have the right management, you have a hard time retaining workers.

“It’s common for people to come and begin training and then get another job offer that competes with wages,” Keatman said. “There’s no allegiance. It’s a competitive market for employers.”

Hard time

During a year of record job growth in Oregon, employers like Keatman have had the hardest time finding workers to fill positions. Companies, particularly in the leisure and hospitality industries, across the state are scrambling to find workers.

The hospitality, hotel, restaurant and tourism-related industries added 6% more jobs this year, economists say. Hiring is more competitive than ever as employers raise wages, offer signing bonuses, referral bonuses, improved benefits, even subsidies for housing. But those incentives also have to compete against federal unemployment benefits, an increase in household income from federal stimulus funds and retirements.

Just ask Robin Clement, co-owner of Monkless Belgian Ales in Bend. Clement and her husband opened their pub just four months before the pandemic shut it down to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Fast forward to July when tourism season in Central Oregon hits a high note and the state is reopening as COVID-19 cases wane, the Clements are scrambling to get enough workers to keep the brew pub open six days a week.

In an interview with an out-of-town worker recently seeking a lead prep cook position, Clement said she made an offer on the spot to the worker. The applicant dined with his family for dinner that night.

But the next day, he told herClement he took another position. because it The job he took offered slightly more money and a leadership role, something the small pub couldn’t offer, Clement she said.

“It was really disappointing, but par for the course. He was one of the few interviews that I set up who actually showed,” Clement said. “2020 was a cake walk compared to 2021.

“Customers have little grace. Their patience is thin. It’s been hard dealing with expectations.”

Tough spot

Only 32,500 eligible workers statewide are sitting out the labor market waiting for the pandemic to lift, who may have health concerns or child care issues, said Gail Krumenauer, Oregon Employment Department economist. And another 12,000 workers statewide, who had been in the leisure and hospitality industry, now are working in the transportation/warehousing and delivery sector because of higher wages and benefits, Krumenauer said. The average wage for leisure and hospitality in Oregon is about $14 an hour but in transportation/warehousing it’s $18 to $20 an hour.

“That’s a tough spot to be in. The hiring is 1-1/2 times greater than we’ve ever seen,” Krumenauer said. “This spring we had 98,000 job vacancies, that’s a lot of what is fueling the worker shortage.

“That’s a perfect storm: a lot of things happening all at once and it makes it hard for employers. Everyone’s hiring. “

Layer these events on top of one another and mix in pent up demand for buying and traveling and the demand on goods and services increases, which in turn increases demand on the need for more workers, Krumenauer said.

“Expanded benefits helped families in Central Oregon and nationwide keep food on the table and a roof over their heads when workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own during this public health pandemic,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said in an email. “Research has repeatedly debunked the baloney that benefits discouraged work.

“What’s clear in my conversations with Oregonians all over our state is that the lack of child care, housing costs, the unique challenges of service industry work and other factors are what’s really keeping many people from returning to the workplace.”

Going down

The unemployment rate in July was 5.6% in Deschutes County, lower than the double-digit rates at the height of pandemic-related closures, but still above February 2020 when it was 3.3.%, according to the Oregon Employment Department monthly unemployment figures. Crook and Jefferson counties too have seen their unemployment levels return to near normal levels in the months following the business closures imposed to slow the spread of the virus.

Crook County’s unemployment rate was 7% in July, compared to 4.4% in February 2020. And Jefferson County’s unemployment rate was 6.5% in July, compared to 4.1% in February 2020.

In Eastern Oregon, Baker County’s unemployment rate was 5.4% in July 2021, compared to 8.7% the prior July. Union County’s unemployment rate was 5.8% in July 2021, down from 9.4% the prior July. Wallowa County’s unemployment rate was 5.4% in July, compared to 8.3% the previous year and Umatilla County was 5.5% in July 2021, down from 7.3% in July 2020.

Statewide the unemployment rate was 5.2% in July, just slightly below the national unemployment rate of 5.4%.

“There’s no doubt that (the federal boost of the unemployment insurance) is constraining the supply of labor,” said Damon Runberg, Oregon Employment Department regional economist. “But I don’t think it is to a significant degree.

“The labor market will likely ease some as we move into the fall, but that will be more a reflection of a reduction in job vacancies rather than a massive influx of workers who lost their federal unemployment insurance benefits.”

Child care could potentially get worse if the Bend Park & Recreation District isn’t able to hire 20 more workers for its after-school programs. It takes about 90 employees working part-time hours to run the 14 programs in elementary schools, said Julie Brown, district community relations manager.

The district has posted hiring signs everywhere, even on the vehicles, posted ads on social media, job fairs with on-the-spot hiring, and even raised the hourly pay, she said.

”We’ve worked all summer long struggling to recruit the new employees needed,” Brown said. “These things typically produce the results. This situation feels different.”

In letters to parents, the park and recreation district asked for referrals from parents, she said. There are 1,000 children signed up for after school care when school starts Sept. 8 in Bend.

”We’ve never experienced this before,” said Brown. “We offer training skills for those who want to do this job. Most of our workers are in their 20s, but we do have people working in these jobs in all ages.”

Nearly 18 months past the initial business restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus, Oregon has regained two out of every three jobs lost in the spring of 2020, Krumenauer said. Just in the leisure and hospitality sector alone, the state added 7,100 jobs in July, she said.

At Monkless, Clement said she hopes that after the federal unemployment subsidy subsides, she’s hoping to take on a full complement of staff. She needs to fill about seven positions, and that’s keeping her from opening her business seven days a week.

Clement said the pub has not been able to operate at full capacity since the shut down in March and that’s because of staffing issues. And if summer hires leave or wait staff leave because they don’t want to wear a mask, she might have to consider closing for lunch or limiting more service.

”It’s challenging as an employer,” Clement said. “The worries I had in 2020 were if we were going to make it because we were a new brew pub. This year we have an unprecedented number of customers and a lack of staff that continues to get worse. “

Sparrow Bakery’s owner Keatman said she thinks the stress of the pandemic is waring thin on workers who have to face customers daily. With the average age of a service industry about 19 to 24, Keatman said, she sees anxiety at levels she’s never seen before.

”Workers in this age group don’t have a secure financial situation and they’re trying to figure things out,” Keatman said. “They’re trying to figure things out. Being at work sucks.”

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