Businesses continue to struggle with labor shortages

BUFFALO — Missy Barber works seven days a week.

As manager of Buffalo's Willow Creek assisted living facility, she has to ensure that there is staff scheduled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and with just one part-time and three full-time employees, that's been difficult. 

“That makes it really tough for any of us to get a day off,” Barber said.

Barber is just one of many managers still dealing with workforce shortages that have been prominent since the spring. Experts still struggle to pin down a particular cause of — or solution to — this nationwide phenomenon.

As a professor specializing partially in labor economics, Christelle Khalaf, associate director of the Center for Business and Economic Analysis at the University of Wyoming, is paying

attention to what's happening to the labor force in Wyoming. She said that the pandemic led a lot of older workers to take early retirement. Women, too, were largely taken out of the workforce to care for children or older relatives, and the price and availability of child care has kept people out.

Economists first pointed to the extra federal unemployment benefits funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that boosted payments to well above some workers' salaries, giving them little incentive to return to work. 

But when Wyoming ended its participation in the program at the end of June, the labor shortage did not end with it.

Now, experts wonder whether the change in workforce is due to a pandemic-related shift in lifestyle and values. And it's possible, now that remote work has become the norm for some companies, that employees can live in one city and work in another. 

This may be the case in Johnson County, where a lot of families have moved since the pandemic's start in 2020, but the local workforce hasn't grown. 

“It used to be that when you take another job you uproot your family. Now that's not the case necessarily,” said Jennifer Burden, president of the Buffalo Area Chamber of Commerce board. “We might not see a mass exodus of people (in the workforce), but they might be working remotely somewhere else, so we don't have the same pool of workers to pull from.”

Though this problem is universal, areas like Buffalo — rural, small population, reliant on tourism — are in a unique situation, Burden said.

“We have to have that face-to-face, so for many of our businesses here, working remotely doesn't work,” she said. “A lot of our industry is centered on tourism and that face-to-face is required, so it creates a unique issue here.”

According to the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information, more than 16% of Johnson County's labor force works in the leisure and hospitality industry, which generally refers to lodging, restaurants and guided outdoor experiences. The same data shows that a lot of Johnson County residents — 1,493 — work outside of the county, primarily in Sheridan, Campbell and Natrona counties. Fewer workers — 774 — commute into Johnson County from those areas.

Burden said she's heard anecdotes about businesses in Sheridan and Gillette that are able to offer significant signing bonuses, ones that smaller, local businesses may be unable to compete with.

The same goes for wages. 

Large companies, such as Walmart and McDonald's, have been able to significantly increase their starting wages to, in some cases, more than $15 an hour.

Even for the companies offering competitive wages, however, it may not be enough. The same signs boasting high wages and competitive benefits that were placed in the summertime still hang.

For some, it seems, the draw to a job isn't always the money.

What workers want

For Colleen Delaney, acting director of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, in interfacing with the majority of the community's businesses and new residents, it seems as though people have a different outlook after the COVID-19 pandemic upended so many people's lives, especially their work lives.

This means that instead of businesses working to get back to what was once the status quo, customers might have to adapt to the new look of businesses. 

Whether that means restaurants have fewer servers and therefore provide slower service, or stores that were once open 24 hours a day, seven days a week now close at 10 p.m., consumers may need to adjust accordingly, Delaney said.

“I think this concept started, let's just say a couple decades ago, where everything started to be open for extended hours or even 24/7," she said. "There's been a dial back of that even in heavily populated locations. Now they're only open until 10 or some are closing at eight even.”

Businesses are making adjustments based on their available workforce, Burden said. They're making changes, which isn't always easy for either the business or its customers.

“I am super impressed with the business owners, they've gone above and beyond,” Burden said. "They've had to pivot multiple times. We just have to pivot a little longer to try to figure out what works in the community. We're here for our businesses. If they have specific concerns, we want to hear them so we can try to help address them.”

For Barber, whose business has to operate all day, every day, changing the facility's hours of operation is not an option. And she has no desire to leave — she loves caregiving and spending time with residents, who are like family.

What she would like is more staffers so that she and her coworkers can take breaks. Ideally, eight to 10 additional workers would cover all hours and give employees the opportunity to take time off.

"I'd rather have the staff to be able to rest and take care of myself. Self-care is not a good thing right now,” Barber said. “I love my job, but it is exhausting some days, especially with the drive from Sheridan. My house is a disaster because I'm not there to clean. It's just my husband and I and he works overnight. It's been trying on all of us.”

Professor Khalaf said she believes that workers' preferences for a more flexible work environment are unlikely to go away. That this desire for work-life balance is likely the “new normal.”

Rural areas have smaller populations, and therefore, a smaller pool of potential workers. 

That is even more true for those who need employees with a certain skill set or certification, like Barber at the assisted

living center.

An informal survey created by the Bulletin polled businesses who are members of the chamber about job openings. Nine businesses indicated that they had unfilled job openings at the time the survey was sent, in October, while 12 indicated that they did not.

Most of these establishments said that they primarily were having trouble filling positions due to a lack of applicants. A lot of businesses also cited a lack of qualified applicants.

Barber said this is a problem at Willow Creek, a facility that accepts Medicaid, because employees need the proper certifications to care for residents.

“There are six homes in the state that are all Willow Creek, but there are only two of us that are Medicaid and have to have CNAs, so it's kind of hard to share staff that way,” she said. "They couldn't work here without being certified, so we can't even have somebody pick up an extra shift here and there.”

Because of its potential to affect the local economy, there is a chance that workforce development and training could be taken up by the state. 

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said he is uncertain how that would play out in the Wyoming Legislature, but he said he believes the solution should include skill-building.

“I think people see an opportunity to come back into the workforce not at 15 to 16 bucks, but at 30-plus an hour. Maybe we can attract more interest in these training programs,” he said.

He pointed to one program that focuses on skills — Wyoming Works. The program was established in 2019 with funding from the Legislature to fund individual student grants for the state's com munity colleges and to develop the skills-based programs.

Eligible programs at Sheridan College, ones that are identified to meet labor and economic needs, include 29 programs dealing with computer science, agriculture, business, health care, hospitality and mechanical skills.

Cindy Delancey, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, said the program is one of the private sector's "best tools" to fulfill workforce needs.

“Getting people the skillset to be safe, prepared and ready in their job is what we need as employers,” she said.

Khalaf said that Wyoming has a skills mismatch as employment in the mining and energy sectors is declining.

“Once workers are displaced, they have to either accept a lower- paying job or gain new skills for a new career if they want to maintain similar wages,” she wrote in an email to the Bulletin. “This often means that workers end up leaving the state.”

To retain them, Khalaf said, it needs to be easy to transition into other occupations.

“Perhaps through offering free workforce training, or even tax exemptions for firms implementing training programs,” she said.

Another issue facing the workforce is access to affordable child care. Without alternatives, workers with children may need a flexible schedule.

Delaney said that businesses might have to get creative in their hiring process to fill needs. She said she recently talked with a business owner hoping to hire an administrative assistant.

“Based on what they were saying, I said, maybe you split it. Maybe somebody works two days and then somebody works the other two days,” Delaney said.

Overall, Khalaf said it is unlikely that changed preferences in favor of a flexible work environment will be reversed. Burden said the chamber hopes to hold training for employers in the next couple of months to address hiring problems.

“I think, right now, what would be really beneficial to our community is hiring,” Burden said. “How do I reach the people I need to reach? How do I stand out from my competitors?”