‘It’s a worker’s market’: Staffing shortages force Spokane-area businesses to adapt

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It was a chef’s outfit day for Andy Rooney.

A shirt and tie is usually the norm for Rooney, the general manager of Mirabeau Park Hotel. The day called for culinary scrubs, however: MAX at Mirabeau – the hotel’s restaurant and bar – has had little luck hiring cooks and dishwashers. Meanwhile, only one laundry staffer showed up to work.

The situation pushed Rooney into the kitchen with Assistant Manager Paul Santos, who helped with a lunch order for 105 sandwiches before heading down to the laundry room. He was joined by a restaurant busser who was supposed to have the day off. Outside the kitchen, a human resources representative held the fort as restaurant host.

The scene at Mirabeau would’ve been extraordinary prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rooney said. These days, it’s Thursday.

The workforce squeeze at Mirabeau is one felt by businesses nationwide, as attempts to recover the economy out of the pandemic have exacerbated longstanding employment and workforce development issues.

The challenges have taken on a new dynamic. U.S. job openings hit a record-high 9.2 million in May; conversely, employers only hired 5.9 million, according to a U.S. Labor Department report. The month before, approximately 4 million people quit their jobs, the highest recorded figure since 2000.

A May 2021 study commissioned by Prudential Financial, which sampled approximately 2,000 self-identified employed adults 18 and older, saw 48% of respondents say they are rethinking the types of jobs they want. Fifty-three percent said they would retrain for a different career if they had the chance.

“Externally, our country is really experiencing what we’re calling ‘the Great Resignation,’” said Stacia Taylor, chief human resources officer for Inland Northwest Health Services.

In Washington, the number of hospitality jobs in April 2021 – the latest data available through the state Department of Commerce – was down by around 79,000 from where the industry was in December 2019. That included around 49,000 jobs linked with food service and drinking establishments.

It’s not just hospitality. The number of manufacturing, education and “other services” jobs (categorized as member organizations, personal services and repair) were each down by at least 10% since December 2019. Meanwhile, the number of retail jobs over that span is up 2%.

The state’s preliminary seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 5.2% in June, down just slightly from the 5.3% reported in May and 10% from a year ago. In Idaho, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 3%. The nationwide unemployment rate in June was 5.9%.

In Spokane County, the most recent data from the state Employment Security Department listed the county’s nonseasonally adjusted unemployment rate at 5% in May, down from 6.1%in April and 12.7% last year.

The rate has declined as establishments that laid off employees during the pandemic attempt to rehire amid loosened coronavirus restrictions with the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The numbers are very high,” said Dave Mastin, assistant vice president for government affairs at the Association of Washington Business. “We’re having businesses that are closing early or not opening on certain days because there’s just a lack of people coming back off of unemployment and getting back into the workforce.”

Challenges across the board

Dick’s Hamburgers on East Third Avenue in Spokane is closed on Sundays until further notice. A manager reached by phone declined to comment for this story, citing 12- to 14-hour workdays.

Another Spokane burger joint, D. Lish’s Hamburgers, has adjusted dining room and drive-thru hours. Across state lines, the Silver Rapids Indoor Waterpark at Silver Mountain Resort, east of Coeur d’Alene, has similarly reduced weekday hours, though weekends are the same.

These are some of the perceptible changes businesses have made in response to staffing challenges. Employers in all industries are “learning together” in how to adjust, said Alisha Benson, chief executive officer of Greater Spokane Inc.

“For everyone, labor continues to dominate their challenge front; the difficulty with not having enough people to carry out their work,” Benson said. “Similarly, we’re hearing continued stories where there are people signing up for interviews and not showing up, or being overwhelmed by the number of applications; they’re so short-staffed, they’re having a hard time even hiring because they’re trying to manage their business.”

The health care industry has experienced a staffing crisis with all levels of talent for more than a decade, and it’s only gotten worse with time – not to mention the pandemic, said Taylor, who oversees Spokane and Stevens counties for INHS.

For Providence Health Care facilities, including Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Taylor said administrators have seen shortages at all levels, including nurses, physicians, medical technicians and nutrition workers. She said the health system as a whole is seeing 25% fewer applicants than in 2019.

Despite a lack of applicants amid a record-number of job openings, Taylor said Providence is filling a record-high number of positions on a monthly basis. She acknowledged pandemic-related employee burnout has been a factor.

“We do have turnover,” Taylor said, “and we’re experiencing that as well as many other of our sector partners. It’s a national trend; people are exploring career options while they have the opportunity to do so. Internally, we’re addressing turnover, and we’ve had lots of different successes with that.”

Providence declined to release specific numbers on staffing levels.

In working to address the staff shortages over the years, Taylor said Providence has offered “unprecedented perks” to attract and retain workers, such as hiring bonuses, retention bonuses and wage increases across the board.

Taylor said another way Providence has worked over the last several years to address the shortage is through collaborating with workforce development groups – including World Relief Spokane, Next Generation Zone and WorkSource Spokane – for “earn while you learn” programs.

The programs offer paid on-the-job apprenticeship opportunities for positions including nursing and medical assistants. During the course of these approximately yearlong programs, Taylor said participants are employed full time by the health system.

“Staffing really has impacted the hospitals in many different ways, not only unique to Providence, but really across our state, there have been issues getting critical care beds for our patients,” Taylor said, “but we work really closely with all of our health care partners across the state who are facing the same issues to ensure that patient care is not interrupted.”

Silver Mountain Resort typically has around 50 waterpark employees between full- and part-time staffers. As of last week, the park was short approximately 10 people, said marketing coordinator Gus Colburn.

In particular, the resort is seeking more front-line lifeguards to staff the waterpark. Silver Mountain also is hiring for a facilities maintenance staffer, an executive chef-restaurant manager and housekeepers.

To better compete in the job market, Silver Mountain raised wages for all entry-level positions in housekeeping, lifeguarding and lift operations, Colburn said. Lifeguards, for example, make $11 an hour plus a $2 bonus for every hour worked if they continue through the entire summer. Housekeepers earn $11 to $13 per hour.

When asked what might be causing the staffing challenges, Colburn’s reasoning aligned more with North Idaho’s booming housing market.

“We haven’t been able to fill these spots in part due to the lack of housing in Kellogg,” Colburn said in an email. “The rental market is hot right now and there are no vacant houses for employees to live who aren’t already tenants somewhere.”

At the moment, the temporary change in hours at D. Lish’s Hamburgers is less about a lack of employees and more to do with a lack of experience among the staff, said owner Mike Lish.

D. Lish’s dining room reopened for the first time this year in May.

That lasted a week. When the restaurant lost two “key people” to other employers, Lish said, he closed the dining room again until the end of the school year.

To their credit, D. Lish’s current crop of staffers are “some of the best high school kids we’ve ever hired,” Lish said. He was also quick to note that everyone at the restaurant is “kind of out of practice” with the dining room closed for so long.

“Right now, anybody that’s out there hustling right now, they’re going to have the jobs that they want when everybody comes back into the marketplace,” he said. “We’re fast food, right? So a lot of these younger kids, we’re trying to teach them how to show up to a job and then push them into other jobs.”

D. Lish’s has increased the restaurant’s starting wage to $14 an hour, which can quickly jump to $15 “once we know a person is capable of doing (the job),” Lish said. That’s up by around 50 cents to $1 more from where wages were a year ago.

“There’s not a whole lot of room to grow here, but you can learn your skills to move on,” he said. “We’ve always been able to replace them, but that’s been the hard part: Being able to replace people.”

People not showing up for interviews was a problem even before the pandemic, Lish said; it’s just gotten worse. Restaurant managers have tried scheduling five or six interviews all for the same time.

Lish said they’re lucky if one shows up.

“And then you’re lucky again if they actually show up for their first day of work if they accept the job,” he said. “I don’t understand that. It’s frustrating.”

At Mirabeau, if it’s not people showing up for interviews, Rooney said it’s new hires that mysteriously disappear after a few days. Sometimes, it’s not even a day.

“One lady two weeks ago came in half a day,” he said. “You get so many applications. You call people, you make appointments, they say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll show up,’ and they don’t show up. … We interview all the time. If I have 10 interviews set up, it’s a running joke: ‘Let me know if they show up.’ ”

The Spokane Valley hotel and convention center could use the help. Mirabeau, Rooney said, had just under 70 employees this past December – approximately half from where it was a year prior. That has caused levels of overtime pay that “cannot be sustained,” he said.

While hotels were classified essential businesses near the start of the pandemic, Rooney said a lack of business with nobody traveling at that time effectively shut Mirabeau down, resulting in staffwide layoffs.

“Everyone that we could bring back, I brought back. Some people didn’t come back,” he said. “I find that I don’t advertise anything else except for help wanted.”

When fully staffed, Mirabeau has a platoon of around 14 housekeepers per day to maintain the hotel’s 235 rooms. At of the start of the month, the most Mirabeau had on a given day was six or seven, Rooney said.

That doesn’t include support staffers, or “linen runners,” who take sheets and other items to and from the laundry room as needed.

“I think I had two yesterday,” Rooney said of Mirabeau’s linen runners. “In the middle of the day, it went to one. Lasted a day and a half.”

As other businesses have, Mirabeau has taken steps to increase wages and benefits to better compete in the job market. Rooney said Mirabeau is advertising a starting hourly wage for housekeepers at $14.25, adding in a $2,000 automatic service bonus based on hours worked.

“There’s no incentive when the state of Washington unemployment is giving them free money,” Rooney said. “It’ll only go down when the free money stops and the unemployment stops. That’s the only way you’re going to get out of this.”

‘The Great Resignation’

Rooney is not alone among employers that believe expanded federal unemployment aid programs have discouraged people from looking for work.

Lish said he believes the benefits play only a part in the staffing crisis, however.

“Anybody that has thought they want to get out of food service has had the opportunity to do it … They’ve had their choice with what they want to do,” he said. “I think that’s going to help when those extra benefits stop, but I think in our industry, we’re going to be hurting for a while just trying to get people older than high school.”

Area industry and state labor experts agree.

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said he worked with the Employment Security Department to determine roughly 27,000 of the approximately 79,000 hospitality jobs lost from December 2019 are tied to unemployment.

Tracing the remaining 66% is much less precise, he said.

Some people retired. Some left for states with looser pandemic restrictions – particularly chefs, Anton said, who fled for states like Nevada, Texas, Louisiana and Florida. For what it’s worth, Washington’s population was up as of April by around 110,000 people over last year, according to the state Office of Financial Management, with Spokane County showing 6.8% growth.

For many high school and college students, restaurants and hotels are their first jobs, Anton said. Pandemic restrictions on eateries, however, pushed potential restaurant employees – and clientele – to grocery stores, making this past year “the best year to own a grocery store since 1954,” he said.

With restaurants reopened, Anton expects any disparities between grocery store and restaurant employment levels to gradually even out.

“Every industry is short workers, so we’re competing against everybody. We’re not the only ones short, but that does mean that we’re competing more against the restaurant down the street,” he said. “We’re competing against the construction down the street and the truck driving jobs and Amazon and big-box and all employers.”

Benson added, “As we can get back to business of holding conferences, sports and entertainment, concerts and all those things … that also feeds our hospitality sector. There are things that’ll help employment and will help the recovery.”

With Amazon, the company’s new fulfillment center in Spokane Valley – expected to open later this year – is reportedly coming with around 1,000 jobs. Benson said the facility is driving discussion among local employers to increase wages and benefits to compete.

“I think there’s an element of competition and competition is good,” Anton said. “It’s a worker’s market.”

While there is a theme of people seeking work elsewhere, Benson said a larger concurrent issue is that of child care, as parents – women, in particular – seek out flexible hours and higher wages to afford available care options.

“It’s certainly holding folks on the sidelines right now from either returning to the workforce or engaging fully,” Benson said. “We’ve seen an increased number of women who have exited the workforce during the pandemic. Until school is back in session and we’re able to increase the child care support and those kinds of things, them re-entering the workforce is going to continue to lag as well.”