Local businesses grapple with staffing shortages | News, Sports, Jobs

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz
State Street Car Wash employee Don Woodham rinses down a car while at work on Thursday. The car wash, and many other businesses, are struggling to hire help for a variety of reasons. Business owners say the stress levels of current employees are rising, and they are asked to do more to make up for the lack of help.

ALPENA — On the heels of record-low unemployment and restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, local business owners once again are struggling to find the needed employees to fully run their operations.

Local businesses say there are several reasons people aren’t filling out applications or submitting resumes. They say there is still fear of COVID-19 for some, while others can’t find appropriate child-care. Other local employers say the population in Alpena is shrinking and aging, which shrinks the pool of possible hires.

Many business owners in Alpena agree however that hiring issues are directly related to the amount of money people without jobs receive in unemployment.

Wayne Kowalski, owner of State Street Car Wash, said because staffs are smaller, the employees he does have work many hours, and are becoming frustrated because there is little help available on the schedule.

He said representatives in Lansing and Washington need to take steps to rectify the situation because it is getting worse.

“There is a very high level of stress because the employees are just getting killed (working long hours), and the business community is getting slayed,” Kowalski said. “We need workers, and the only thing I can think of that might work is to end the unemployment benefits that are so generous that nobody wants to work.”

The unemployment calculator on the state’s website states that the average person who qualifies for unemployment receives $624 a week.

Culver’s owner Sherry Milstein said the restaurant limits how long its dining room is open because there aren’t enough employees to run the order counter and keep the dining room clean.

She said the store received a corporate mandate that the dining room must be open full-time by June 14, but she doubts she can meet that deadline. Milstein said all employees make $11 an hour or more, and some make more than $16 an hour.

She said a lack of housing, unemployment, and big-box stores hiring younger workers have contributed to the lack of talent available. She said as the employee shortage drags on, the morale of her staff falls.

“We are asking these people to do more and more and more,” she said. “They are getting stressed and I don’t know how much more they can take. I don’t know how much more I can take. People’s mental health is suffering.”

Milstein said since February, her and husband Mark have taken money from their personal bank accounts and given $100 to each employee for their hard work and dedication. They also offer free food, vacations and higher starting wages.

“And they still walk out or (don’t) come in wanting to work,” Milstein said.

The Sandbar Bar and Grill owner John Fisher didn’t mince words about why he believes people aren’t applying for work, and how it impacts his business and other employees. He said anyone looking for work can find a job. Fisher said anyone who isn’t looking, doesn’t want one and is comfortable living on unemployment.

As far as his business goes, he said, because of a lack of help, he is forced to keep his winter hours, even though his peak business season is just beginning.

“Who would want to work when they can sit at home on their butts and get paid,” he said.

Fisher said he starts workers with a highly competitive wage, but cautioned against increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He said if that were to become a reality, prices would surge everywhere.

“The cost of a bottle of beer would go up a dollar and probably three dollars for a burger,” he said. “I try to make things affordable, but that’s probably what would have to happen.”

Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce President Adam Poll said many businesses are struggling to interview or hire people, and each has different ways of trying to hire potential employees.

He said some offer higher starting wages (or) incentives for people who accept jobs and employees who referred them. Poll said the increased unemployment benefits and extended time people are eligible to collect them is an issue, but so is the lingering effect and fear of COVID-19.

“It really is the perfect storm of reasons people don’t want to work,” Poll said. “I’m not sure there is a silver bullet to fit it unfortunately.”

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