For months you’ve seen the signs and posts for business after business: help wanted. Staff needed. But through the summer, restaurants haven’t seen people apply for the open positions.

“I’ve had a lot of jobs posted, nobody applies,” said Shelly Salge, owner of Boondocks. “There’s nobody looking for work.”

“It was very frustrating,” said Yvonne Strom, Oma’s Bread head baker and business development manager. “In the beginning … I took it personal like maybe it’s us, maybe nobody wants to work with us but then talking to all the other restaurants and businesses they all had the same issue. Nobody wanted to work. Hopefully it’s turning around now, hopefully.”

“You just can’t find them,” said Jessie Grangruth, owner of Iron Corral. “Either they’ll show up and fill out an application but then they won’t show up for the job or they’ll show up the one day and then they’ve just satisfied for their benefits they’re getting.”

Though, there was one trend that helped the businesses: high school and college students. The students “saved us” through the summer, as Strom and Salge described.

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The hospitality and healthcare industries and businesses deemed non-essential are some of the hardest hit, as Economic Alliance executive director Katie Heppner said. With jobs being added across the state, including large numbers in the private and leisure and hospitality sectors, there is a 63.8% recovery of the 416,300 jobs lost between February and April 2020 in Minnesota.

“The labor shortage really seems to be affecting that entry level employee,” Heppner said. “A lot of businesses are offering very similar wage rates and benefits so retention’s become an issue as one business increases a dollar more, maybe some employees go there.”

The unemployment insurance claims in Wadena County for 2019, 2020 and 2021 as of July 2021.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development
The unemployment insurance claims in Wadena County for 2019, 2020 and 2021 as of July 2021. Contributed / Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development

From the take-out only to reduced capacity requirements, restaurants are faced with the tough business of reopening fully but not having the staff that’s needed. When the restaurants were closed, staff members had to find other positions or go on unemployment benefits. The unemployment benefits have hindered the hiring process, according to Grangruth and Strom.

“It’s the times we’re in right now, when you pay people to stay home and not work then it has a trickle down effect all the way through the industry everywhere so it’s not going to repair itself now,” Grangruth said. “You can’t have all the handouts and expect people to go to work.”

State and federal unemployment benefits have helped people who were out of work. Three of the federal pandemic related unemployment programs ended on Sept. 4. In Wadena County, the highest amount of unemployment insurance applications include construction trades workers, other production occupations, food and beverage serving workers, cooks and food preparation workers and retail sales workers from March 16, 2020 to June 22, 2021, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The why to the lack of workers also range from needing to find a job in a different sector to having the opportunity to work from home, as Heppner explained, along with factors like access to child care, worry about COVID-19 and waiting to return to a previous position, as DEED stated.

Read more about Minnesota's unemployment rate in 2021:

As small businesses, the staff members are asked to do more like covering shifts, as Salge described about their extra hours before opening and after closing.

“We’re not open to 100%, we’re only at 75% because of staff shortages and we’ve closed Sundays now because of it. I can’t work 24/7, it doesn’t work that way,” Salge said. “Dale and I start very early in the morning and we’re usually here till 5:30, 6 at night. So it’s long days and that’s how we’re covering the shortages because we just pick up the slack. … You still have to function as a business and people still expect good service and good quality food … so you just do what you have to do.”

While always focusing on food quality and customer service, the long and exhausting hours meant restaurants had to reduce their hours. Now businesses post special hours for the week and about closing for the day due to schedules in addition to menu specials.

Businesses like the Iron Corral had to close the business down certain days of the week. At the end of August, they changed their open days to Thursday - Sunday due to a lack of staffing. It was a painful decision for the owners.

Salge said at the Boondocks they just need one day a week to relax without the worry of schedules, and to enjoy their family.

“Now is the time to be patient, now is the time to tip if you’re able to, to extend that grace for those who are showing up,” Heppner said.

“Finding workers seems to be the new pandemic,” the Iron Corral remarked in a recent post.
“Finding workers seems to be the new pandemic,” the Iron Corral remarked in a recent post.

While businesses search for staff members, Heppner said “without some big cultural shifts and changes this problem is not going away.” She added that businesses who have offered working from home as well as increasing wages per hour or based on how long people have stayed have been beneficial.

“Unfortunately there’s not an easy silver bullet for one business,” Heppner said. “With other issues sometimes it’s well if you do x, y, z you’ll see a result, with this it’s a lot more nuanced so a business can be doing everything right—raising wages, offering more interesting benefits, having a positive work culture—and they still could have a workforce shortage.”

The hiring process is completely different than pre-pandemic, as Grangruth and Salge said. At Boondocks, there are few applications to fill the position rather than sorting through applications for where the skills match the best. And restaurant positions often mean a base level of skills that are needed, according to Salge. Even with new people starting, Strom said it’s difficult to know how long people will stay in the position.

“People have the option now to find different jobs so you never know, ‘Are they going to stick, are they going to look for something else?’ So I think it’s going to be kind of playing the field a little bit now but we’ll see how it goes,” Strom said. “I’m optimistic, I think, I have to be.”

"Now is the time to be patient, now is the time to tip if you’re able to, to extend that grace for those who are showing up."

- Katie Heppner, Economic Alliance executive director

The issue of a “huge workforce shortage” was supposed to come in the next few years as the Baby Boomers retire and there aren’t enough young people in Minnesota to fill the gap, according to Heppner. “Well, then the pandemic hit and it really sped up time. So instead of, this is going to be a significant issue five years from now, this is an issue now,” she said. People may have retired early or felt safer working in another industry.

While the issues aren’t going to change quickly, Heppner encourages community conversations and supporting local businesses.

“The biggest thing that we can do is support small businesses, let them know we’re here for them during this time and continue to shop small, shop local, … support what you can because everyone’s going through a rough time right now and I think community’s what can carry us through,” Heppner said.