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Workforce shortage affects county businesses

Childcare a major limitation for job seekers

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Tucked along the roadside on the way to one of of American’s most beloved hiking areas, the Jewel Basin, the Echo Lake Café has been a favorite eatery for locals since 1960. 

But going into the busy season this year, the eatery sent out an honest message to customers, warning that the dining experience may be different from years past. 

“Due to an unprecedented lack of kitchen staffing this year, we have made the difficult decision to reduce our menu,” the message reads. “Our limited staff just can’t keep up with such a large menu. Please know that this was not a decision that we came to easily, and this was truly a last resort.” 

The labor shortage isn’t just impacting the café but also most employers in Lake County. 

“We are seeing that it is difficult to fill both seasonal and non-seasonal jobs in Lake County,” Montana Department of Labor and Industry Public Information Office Jessica Nelson said. “There are numerous reasons for the lack of employees: many retired or left the workforce due to COVID-19, others are not working due to a lack of childcare, some have permanently left service-type jobs due to the typical longer hours and lower pay.” 

As of the second week of June there were 415 jobs listed as available in Lake County through the Department of Labor and Industry’s website, and there are many employers that don’t post their job listings on the site. While it’s not required for employers to list a hiring wage, the average pay rate for Lake County employers who do list pay on the site is around $10-$12 per hour, Nelson reported. 

“Wages are rising across Montana and in nearly every industry,” Nelson said. “Some food service employers in Lake County pay minimum wage, but many of those employees receive tips in addition to that.” 

However, costs are also rising. According to Kids Count Montana, the average cost of childcare for Montana families is between $8,400 and $9,500 per year. At that rate, a person working full-time at a $12 per hour job should expect to spend approximately 40 percent of their income on childcare alone. Lack of childcare is one of two main issues people report as barriers to entering the workforce, Nelson said. The other issue is access to transportation. 

In order to provide families some relief, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, Early Childhood and Family Support Division is offering 2,500 one-time childcare scholarships to help cover the costs of summer childcare for elementary-aged children entering first through fifth grades. The awards are $2,000 per eligible child and are funded by the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.  

However, the state’s website for the program notes that the funds will be allocated regionally based on Census data, meaning that rural areas won’t have as many scholarships available as larger cities. 

The state is also offering other incentives to get back on the job. As of June 27, Montana will end its participation in the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which offered extended unemployment benefits to those laid off during the pandemic. The program also paid $300 in supplemental benefits on top of regular unemployment. Participation in pandemic-related programs for the self-employed are also ending June 27. 

Instead the state is sponsoring a Return to Work program that will give $1,200 to job seekers who were receiving unemployment benefits as of May 4 that sustain four weeks of paid work. 

In addition, the Department of Labor and Industry is offering an Incumbent Worker Training program, which helps businesses cover up to $2,000 in costs to train current employees so that they can earn higher wages and increase business for their company. 

Job Service Polson, an employment agency, offers services, and in some cases, financial assistance for both job seekers and employers that can help with training and workforce issues. They can be reached at 406-883-7880 or at polsonJSC@mt.gov. 

Even as the state works to assist, employers may have to get creative to attract applicants, according to Nelson. “Employers should think outside the box in terms of recruitment and retention,” Nelson said. “There is currently a low unemployment rate in Lake County (4.1 percent for April 2021) and in Montana (3.7 percent for April 2021). These unemployment rates are at or near pre-COVID levels. In addition, COVID has changed the way that work is performed across the board. It truly is a job-seeker’s market, and employers that are willing to be creative and consider new ideas for hiring and retaining talent will be the ones able to attract the workers they need.” 

Job seekers can also help employers trying to hire. “Job seekers should research the positions for which they are applying and understand all the duties and requirements of the job,” Nelson said. “They should submit a resume or a job application that is clear, concise and without spelling/grammar mistakes, and they should have a working phone number or message phone number so that the employer can contact them. They should be open and honest about their availability and schedule to work.” 

In the meantime, the public is encouraged to practice patience as they head out to their local businesses. The Valley Journal contacted numerous business owners, managers and employees throughout Lake County over the past several weeks who confirmed staffing shortages. From hospitality-based businesess to grocers, retailers and more, staffing shortages are affecting a wide sector of the business community. For many businesses, the problem is further compounded by increased visitor traffic during the area’s routinely busy summer tourism season.

The Echo Lake Café succinctly issued a plea for understanding: “Please keep in mind that our serving staff was not responsible for these decisions, and although they sympathize with you, they cannot help the situation. Please be kind to them during this difficult transition.” 

A day after sending out the message the café reported on Facebook that they were overwhelmed with support from customers. 

 

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