Worker shortage frustrates Minnesota businesses

Many businesses are sporting help wanted signs from manufacturers to bars and restaurants. 

“All you have to do is look around,” said Teresa Bohnen the president of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce. “I know here in St. Cloud we have a lot of restaurants that aren’t opening one or two days a week or have limited hours because they just don’t have the people right now.”

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Laura Bordelon said it’s a problem throughout the state.

“We have definitely heard from both our members as well as local chambers that they are having a challenging time finding workers,” Bordelon said.

And Bordelon said many businesses think they know the culprit.

“Many of them attribute that to the enhanced unemployment insurance benefits,” Bordelon explained.

Among the trillions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funding is a lot of federal money to augment state unemployment payments. Early on it was an extra $600 a week. It’s now $300 and it’s set to continue through early September.

“In our office we have two giant white boards, and they’re chock full of over 40 different companies that are looking for people right now. We’ve got well over 100 openings,” said Karl C. Amlie who owns an Express Employment Professionals franchise in Forest Lake. 

“I do get calls every single day from companies that are really struggling, they’re having a hard time filling the demand and that means that their growth is stifled.”

Back in St. Cloud, Bohnen said a recent unscientific survey of businesses in that area found most blame those extra payments for their problems in finding workers. Bohnen wants Minnesota lawmakers to cut them off.

“It’s critical right now to get these people back to work and when you incent them to stay out of work,” Bohnen said.” It’s very difficult on employers to undo that. We need to get the message to them that this is really impacting our ability to get people back to work.”

Gov. Tim Walz said he has no intention of taking away the extra money.

Steve Grove, Walz’s commissioner of employment and economic development, said he’s reassigned DEED employees to help place tens of thousands of phone calls to people on unemployment in hopes of linking them with jobs.

“Our message to Minnesotans is clear: If you can find a job, you need to get back to work,” Grove said.

Grove said people who refuse to take open jobs stand to lose state and federal unemployment benefits. But he would not say how many people in Minnesota have been thrown off unemployment for failing to pursue work.

“I’m sure there are workers for whom it is true that the benefits are keeping them home but it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

Grove and others underscore the labor shortage preceded the pandemic. Challenges with child care, transportation and a lack of skills that are in demand have been preventing some from joining the workforce.

State Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, agrees barriers to matching workers with jobs that have nothing to do with pandemic relief need to be addressed.

For now, though, he wants the state to pay people a $2,000 bonus to return to work.

“We just have to do something because just waiting this thing out, I would call a complete lack of leadership and creativity,” Baker said.

Baker said the same federal dollars he and others think is contributing to people staying at home could be repurposed for the incentive-to-work bonus.

Lobbyist Bordelon backs the proposal. But Bordelon agrees there’s much more than enhanced unemployment benefits behind the labor shortage.

And she warns failing to address the challenge will hurt Minnesota.

“These workforce shortages, they will begin to impact our economic growth and success so it’s a big deal.”

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