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Feb. 24, 2024

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Labor shortage still order of the day in Clark County

Clark County employers struggle to lure workers a month after federal government’s jobless benefits end

By , Columbian Associate Editor
3 Photos
Bartender Mike Dunning serves lunch in the dining room at Main Event East in late 2021.
Bartender Mike Dunning serves lunch in the dining room at Main Event East in late 2021. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s been about a month since the federal government ended unemployment insurance benefits for more than 7,000 people in Clark County. And although there’s no official data to back it up, there’s been no mass return to the workforce to ease an ongoing labor shortage affecting mostly restaurants and hotels.

“It is still tight and continues to impact the operation,” said Mike McLeod, general manager at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. “We have 11 (open) positions, not counting a couple that are in the hiring process.”

From the perspective of many community members, business owners and staffing agencies, some jobs appear to fill slowly as employers become more creative and adapt to a workforce that expects higher starting wages.

“We’re starting to see interest pick up,” said Sharon Pesut, executive director at Partners in Careers, a local nonprofit that assists people with job training and placement. “They’re putting together resumes and looking for jobs.”

New ways to appeal

Pesut is seeing employers adapt to the short supply of workers, using strategies such as hiring bonuses or changing requirements of education level. Partners in Careers adjusted its standards for some of its own jobs, dropping a preference for a bachelor’s degree. Opening those jobs to more candidates also helps the organization pursue its goals related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

In addition to hiring bonuses, many managers are inching up the bottom-rate wages to fill open positions. Other ideas include flexible schedules and mandates about vaccine status: “That’s going to become a bigger issue,” Pesut said.

One local employer, New Seasons, on Monday announced that starting wages will increase to $16.25 per hour. The grocer’s east Vancouver store had five open positions as of Monday in prepared food, produce, meat and seafood, including a management-level opening in the beer and wine department, wrote Kim Rodgers, spokesperson for New Seasons.

“This investment will advance equity in our stores and continue moving the food industry to support livable wages for all workers,” said CEO Nancy Lebold in a news release.

It’s hard to grasp how many employers are increasing their starting wage, but the labor shortage is mostly affecting minimum-wage worker jobs, indicating that they can find more lucrative work elsewhere.

A survey released last week by professional staffing company Robert Half expects starting compensation for U.S. professional occupations to increase about 3.8 percent overall in 2022, and 48 percent of employers surveyed are also offering signing bonuses to entice new hires.

Job applicants are also seeking more flexible work schedules, remote work options and employee discounts, according to the survey that gathered responses from more than 2,800 workers and more than 2,800 senior managers.

“Job openings are at a record high, and workers with in-demand skills have more negotiating power,” said Senior Executive Director Paul McDonald in a news release from Robert Half. “In this tight labor market, increasing salaries is table stakes for employers. Companies must regularly revisit pay ranges and discuss career paths with employees to align on expectations.”

A different report from WalletHub on Wednesday showed that Vancouver is faring better than most cities with its economic recovery. Vancouver ranked 42nd among U.S. cities where employment rates are bouncing back the fastest, beating Portland at 52, Tacoma at 53 and Seattle at 84. New York City sat at the bottom of the list at number 180. The rankings were based on August’s unemployment rate, and changes in unemployment rates over the course of the pandemic; however, the unemployment rates are revised months after they’re released, and they’re known to be not initially entirely accurate.

Looking ahead

Since schools are back in person and child care has reopened, many Clark County parents are seeking a return to the workforce. As their savings from the federal benefits dwindle, the labor shortage will likely fade into a more typical labor market, said Scott Bailey, regional economist for Southwest Washington.

“There’s no doubt that there are job openings out there,” Bailey said. “I don’t know how it will turn out on the labor end. The pessimistic side of me says that in six months, people will have run out of money and go back to jobs that are unsatisfying.”

The data that will paint the picture for how much the labor market is increasing in September won’t come out for about three months, Bailey said, and the rest of 2021’s data will take even longer.

“How many of them are going back to work? It’s going to be months before we’ll know,” he said. “But we can see gross flows of hiring. Some went back to work in September.”

Bailey said in states that prematurely cut off the federal unemployment insurance money, there was only minor improvement in the labor shortage. It showed that the unemployment compensation wasn’t a major reason why people were not returning to work.

There are mixed perspectives in Clark County on how the labor market is improving:

“My work is having a hard time finding new employees. In most of the job interviews we have given, people are not showing up,” Amanda Loftis told The Columbian. “My husband works for UPS and they have been having a really hard time filling entry-level and management positions. They have continued to raise their starting wages, offering a sign-on bonus, etc.”

“We filled our delivery driver position within one week. But we also offered a livable wage ($21/hr), paid medical benefits and a 401(k) match,” wrote Jess Ploium in a message to The Columbian. “We are a very small business (this is now the third person working for the company not counting the owner). Every applicant we interviewed was coming from a large corporate company. Generally it seems like people want to be somewhere they can grow with and/or be appreciated and not part of the corporate grind.”

Mairin Moore Cane told The Columbian that “Nationwide Solar is currently hiring an administrator, installation, electrician and sales. We can’t keep up with our growth and at the same time, we are having difficulty finding people who want to work.”

Jason Fish, restaurateur and co-owner of Main Event, 3 Sheets at the Harbor and his newest restaurant, The Piehole Pizzeria, said that he has seen more people return to the workforce in the last month.

“Within two weeks of federal stimulus money stopping, we had eight interviews and hired four or five for servers or front-of-house workers. We’re still having a hard time with chefs and cooks.”

Regarding the labor market, Fish said that more restaurants are reopening after 18 months of being shut down, waiting for the pandemic to end. Those restaurants are adding to the demand with the job shortage.

“I think it’s going to be an ongoing problem,” he said.