Local employers chafe over lack of workers

Employers in Clallam and Jefferson counties are begging for workers, with some forced to offer hiring bonuses for hourly wage jobs while COVID-19 restrictions ease and the economy opens up.

A combined 2,700 job openings were listed on the state Employment Security Department’s WorkSource job site as of mid-May — 2,200 in Clallam in the Forks, Sequim and Port Angeles areas and 500 in Port Townsend and within a 5-mile radius of the city, WorkSource regional administrator Mike Robinson said Tuesday.

Robinson estimated about 75 percent of those jobs, which include those from company websites that may have been filled, were still available.

He focused on Clallam on May 19 at the county Economic Development Council’s weekly online presentation.

“We’ve got this pool of 2,000 folks between basically Sequim to Forks that are in that, you know, that pool of able to work, and how do we get them to move back to the labor force?” Robinson said.

“I know there’s a lot of opinions on what current unemployment and the federal employment is doing, but there are some other factors that are contributing to that.”

Some perspective: Clallam was at 20.4 percent unemployment last April and Jefferson County at 19.1 percent.

This April, both counties had identical 7.4 percent unemployment rates compared with 6.1 percent statewide, still giving Clallam, Jefferson and Franklin the ninth-highest rate among the state’s 39 counties.

Participants were asked in the EDC’s online invitation, “Are you trying to hire?”

The answer was a resounding yes, with one business using an urban-dictionary term to describe at least one reason no one is applying for jobs that are still open.

“I had a prior employee I reached out to, same problem, kind of laughed at me and said, ‘Why would I do that, I’m home on funemployment,’ ” said Edward Ebling, an administrator of nursing homes in Clallam and Kitsap counties.

“He’s legit, home, staying home, playing video games, able to make more money than he did working for me with all the reimbursements he’s getting from the government, and then also tax season, so from that perspective, he’s living the life.”

But Ebling cited other issues that were present before COVID-19 hit.

“I have health care workers who can’t find housing, even nurses who make a decent wage. There’s limited availability, and I have (certified nursing assistants) who are staying home because they have no daycare. It’s the same problem for them.”

Kenna Eaton, general manager of The Food Co-op in Port Townsend, has nine openings to fill, offering from the minimum wage of $13.69 to about $15 an hour, wages she said can’t be raised without cutting staff.

That’s about one-tenth of her workforce and more than at any one time in the past decade for a time of year when she once received 60 to 80 applicants for jobs.

Eaton is giving $125 or a day off to any employee who offers her a successful referral that she hires and the same to the new worker.

“Previously, we’ve had some challenges finding well-qualified applicants, but this time it’s just applicants,” she said.

“We feel like we’re a good employer.

“I’ve never come across things as difficult as they are right now.”

Neither has Michael McQuay, the EDC board chair and co-owner of Kokopelli Grill and Coyote BBQ Pub in Port Angeles.

In past years McQuay’s had some success from the WorkSource website, worksourcewa.com, which has ready access points for “job seeker” and “employer.”

McQuay has hired just one line cook from WorkSource this year and asks former employees to come back.

“More than once I’ve been laughed at to my face, that why would I come back to work,” he said.

“My qualified line cooks, starting, you’re going to make $18 to $21 an hour, and I’m offering a $2,000 sign-in bonus — 2,000 bucks — and I’ve been doing that for 2½ months, and I’ve gotten that many, not even a sniff, right?”

One of his top employees can’t return because of child care issues. McQuay gets that.

“So I know child care is a part of it, but I can tell you, from my perspective, most of it is people don’t want to give up sitting on their couch, playing video games and getting free money from the government,” McQuay said.

Clallam-Jefferson WorkSource supervisor Brandino Gibson said 1,097 Clallam residents are on unemployment, up from 756 in April 2019 but far less than the 8,000 at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, acknowledging some collect the check and don’t work because they can.

But he contended a full-time minimum-wage job that equals $548 a week is close to the $235 a week of minimum unemployment plus the extra $300 of weekly federal unemployment benefits, which end Sept. 6.

“So can I stay at home?” Gibson said.

“Sure, but there’s a lot of jobs out there, and a lot of employers that are pushing 20 bucks an hour. Now you’re at $800 a week.”

Other factors preventing people from entering the job market include schools not being fully open, limiting parents’ work time, and job seekers not fulfilling job qualifications, Gibson said.

“Nationally, we had a skilled worker shortage before this even hit,” Robinson said.

Gibson said McKinley Paper Co. had to go outside the area for new employees because the area workforce lacked the necessary skills.

“Then, when we bring people in from out of state, then we run into our housing issue, which, rentals are few and far between, if any, and even houses to buy and house prices and rental costs continue to go up.”

Robinson said mental health issues and anxiety from COVID-19 isolation also may play a part, “the lack of resources, the lack of connectivity with people in general, not just work, the whole social piece.”

Others may make a choice unrelated to unemployment insurance.

“You’ve got baby boomers who have been hanging out who say, ‘Maybe I take retirement seriously right now,’ ” Robinson said.

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