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Employers hope return-to-work incentive brings in workers

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | May 11, 2021 12:00 AM

Good help has never been harder to find.

In March, the Montana unemployment rate neared pre-pandemic levels at 3.8% — the same rate the state reported in March 2020.

Meanwhile, the Montana workforce apparently lost approximately 10,000 workers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry last week.

In the Flathead, the struggle to find staff is apparent in the “Now Hiring” signs proliferating at businesses in just about every industry, from food service, to construction, to manufacturing.

Some employers have cut hours and operations because they simply can’t staff them. In April, Montana Coffee Traders closed its Kalispell café “because we are unable to find enough staff to maintain consistent operations in this location.”

In an effort to remedy the situation, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced a plan last week to do away with federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits for out-of-work Montanans, and offer a $1,200 incentive to unemployment recipients who return to work.

These steps are meant “to address the state’s severe workforce shortage and incentivize Montanans to reenter the labor force,” according to the press release from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Starting June 27, Montanans will no longer be eligible to receive unemployment insurance payments through the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

In place of the program, the Montana Return-to-Work Bonus initiative will offer $1,200 payments to unemployment recipients who accept employment after May 4 and complete at least four paid weeks of work.

Montana became the first state to opt out of the federal unemployment benefits when Gianforte announced the move last week.

THOUGH IT’S still too early to tell what kind of impact these changes will have on the local labor market, many in the Flathead business community are hopeful this will help solve the staffing crisis.

“We take great pleasure in this announcement, especially in how it will continue to help those struggling in the wake of the pandemic to get back on their feet,” a press release from L.C. Staffing noted.

Kristen Heck, the president and owner of L.C. Staffing, said she has reason to believe this approach will spark greater labor force involvement, based on the agency’s experience with previous changes in unemployment benefits.

Heck said adjustments to unemployment insurance correlate with interest in L.C. Staffing’s services statewide. When the second COVID stimulus package expired at the end of last year, applicants poured in as they waited for the assistance program to be reupped. Once benefits were reinstated earlier this year, applications dropped off.

“It definitely has an impact,” Heck said. “It was striking to see it.”

A lot of employers would like to see such an impact next month, when federal benefits run out in Montana.

“I am hoping so,” said Shawn Campbell, the general manager of America’s Best Value Inn in Kalispell, when asked whether he expects the governor’s recent decision to affect his staff.

If the return-to-work incentive doesn’t drive applicants to his motel, Campbell is worried he won’t have the staff to make it through the summer.

After 13 years managing the motel, Campbell said, “this is the first year I’m actually really afraid of not having enough help…I am frightened.”

His sign near the busy corner of U.S. 93 South and North Meridian Road has been advertising jobs for over a month, but in that time, Campbell said he’s only received four applications and made two new hires. Neither of the new staff members ever showed up to work, he said.

In Campbell’s estimation, government assistance in the form of stimulus checks and unemployment benefits make it difficult for small employers like him to recruit workers, since he’s already competing with larger companies that can afford to offer higher wages.

If the changes slated for June don’t help Campbell fill out his staff, he admitted “I don’t know” how the Best Value Inn will stay open this summer.

STILL, THERE'S doubt over whether Gianforte’s strategies will serve as a silver bullet for the valley’s staffing shortage.

Since unemployment recipients are only required to work for four weeks in order to receive the $1,200 return-to-work bonus, the long-term impact of the incentive could prove limited. At the same time, longstanding root causes of the staffing shortage that predate the pandemic are likely to go unaltered by the changes coming in June.

Numerous factors have been cited as obstacles to bringing on would-be workers, including a lack of competitive wages, affordable housing, childcare and job benefits.

Whitefish Mountain Resort, for instance, started a social media campaign last week advertising its lodging options for various summer positions. Discounted housing is available for seasonal staff such as line cooks, housekeepers and lift attendants.

Whitefish Mountain Resort Human Resources Director Kristi Hanchett said the resort decided to expand housing for seasonal hires since the mountain isn’t anticipating being able to bring in its usual number of international J-1 visa workers this summer.

But it won’t be until June, if not later, before businesses like Whitefish Mountain Resort can assess whether housing, cash, or the disappearance of federal funds fills out their staff.

AN ASSOCIATED Press story by Wilson Ring reported that William Spriggs, an economist at Howard University and the chief economist for the AFL-CIO, said the issue isn't as simple as the unemployed being able to receive more benefits. He says the economy has changed.

He said he didn't think the job-search requirement is bad, but it won't solve the labor shortage, the AP story noted.

"Matching workers to employers isn't as easy as people think, which is what some of these employers are finding out," Spriggs told AP.

There might be a lot of jobs available, but in some cases they don't fit for the unemployed with specialized work skills.

In Billings, Crystal Dvorak, 41, an audiologist with two teenage daughters, weathered a furlough early in the pandemic, dipping deep into her savings, only to find out last month that she would lose her job when the clinic where she worked for nearly nine years had been sold.

Gianforte announced on June 27 the $300 benefit would end, Dvorak's second day of unemployment.

"It had me in tears," she told AP.

After learning that unemployment benefits would be discontinued and replaced with a return-to-work, one-time bonus of $1,200, Dvorak began applying for waitressing jobs, even though it could complicate her search.

"Knowing that change is coming, I'm having to be open to other positions," she said. "I have shown interest in more jobs in the last week than I have applied for my entire 25 years of working."

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story..

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