At the Dubuque Marina & Yardarm bar and grill, this is typically the time of year when business is in full bloom.
The business, known for its riverside views and live music, thrives in the summer months. And as pandemic fears wane and restrictions loosen, customers have been eager to get out and about.
But Jamie Becker, part of the Yardarm’s ownership group, said the business continues to be held back by the same realities hounding many others.
“It is so hard to get people to work for us,” she said. “We have increased pay. We have reached out to local economic development groups. We have spent money on recruiting platforms. … We have tried every technique we can come up with.”
After extensive experimentation, Yardarm stumbled across one technique that appears to work better than the others — a $500 sign-on bonus for new workers.
But the shortage persists.
It has compelled Yardarm to take steps that once would have seemed unimaginable in the heart of the summer. The business is now open five days per week, instead of its usual six; it is closing its kitchen one hour earlier than usual; and it is scaling back the menu during certain points of the day so its staff can play catch-up.
“We don’t want to do any of these things,” Becker said. “We have to.”
The Yardarm’s hiring struggles are just one example of a problem plaguing business throughout the area, where “Help Wanted” signs are ubiquitous and slashed hours of operation are commonplace.
It’s a phenomenon that cannot be explained just by looking at unemployment rates, the most commonly used – and often misunderstood — barometer of the local labor force. In all 10 counties covered by the Telegraph Herald, the jobless rate in May sat well below the national average of 5.8%. June figures have not been released yet.
So where have all the workers gone?
As the local economy strains to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, theories abound but solutions are few and far between.
WANING LABOR FORCE
The labor force – a figure that shows both those who are employed and those actively seeking work – stood at 55,300 in Dubuque County in May, the last month from which data is available.
That number was only 400 higher than it was in May 2020, when the pandemic’s impact on labor markets was reaching its crescendo. Meanwhile, the current labor force was 1,100 lower than it was in May 2019.
Rick Dickinson, president and CEO of Greater Dubuque Development Corp., thinks there are three primary reasons why the labor force has thinned.
First, he believes the pandemic pushed many older workers into retirement, particularly those who had remained in the workforce past the traditional retirement age. Many such workers reconsidered that decision after the pandemic, opting to avoid the risk of the virus and spend more time with grandchildren instead of returning to work.
Many working couples also changed their arrangements in the past year, with one spouse choosing to remain home as COVID-19 altered day care and school arrangements. Many of these stay-at-home spouses have been reluctant to return to the workforce, realizing that a high percentage of their pay would have to be spent on child care anyway.
Finally, Dickinson noted that the local economy isn’t merely trying to replace positions vacated during the pandemic. It is growing and, therefore, trying to fill new and old positions all at once.
As the underlying causes of the shortage crystallize, other theories don’t seem to be panning out.
In mid-June, Iowa stopped issuing $300 weekly federal supplemental unemployment payments to claimants under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. Many speculated that workers were remaining on the sidelines because of these extra benefits.
Dickinson was always skeptical that ending these benefits would be a silver bullet. So far, it has yet to be a dent in the shortage.
“The common wisdom was that this was the primary cause of the challenges employers faced with hiring people,” he said. “But the data had always revealed a different story.”
Becker, of Dubuque Marina & Yardarm, was hopeful that the end of such supplemental benefits would ease the process of hiring. She’s been disappointed to see it hasn’t altered the landscape at all.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I was so hopeful it would, but it hasn’t made a difference.”
Jared Feller, owner of Horizon Lanes & Hall in Bellevue, Iowa, continues to wrestle with workforce shortages.
He said his business, which includes a bowling alley, kitchen and event center, has been significantly impacted by its inability to hire the needed workers. It’s been forced to limit its menu, reduce hours and shut down entirely on some days.
“We’re definitely losing money because of it,” Feller said. “There have been times we’ve had to close completely on a Saturday.”
Help-wanted ads and other recruitment efforts have proven ineffective.
While he isn’t totally sure why the hiring struggles have persisted, Feller has some theories.
“One of the reasons is I don’t think most parents make their kids work anymore,” he said. “A lot of parents are pushing activities and sports instead.”
Feller acknowledged that it’s hard to keep up with the competition in the labor market, noting that many area companies are enticing workers with hefty sign-on bonuses.
He said the expiration of unemployment benefits hasn’t provided the uptick in applications many had forecast. It’s hard for him to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think for many small businesses, it will be this way for a while until more high school kids start looking for jobs,” he said.
Becker, who also co-owns the recently revamped Offshore Resort in Bellevue, also struggles to see an end in sight.
Offshore Bar & Grill is currently open just four days per week and is offering a menu only half as big as the owners initially intended.
Becker speculated that, in some ways, the tri-state region might be a victim of its own success. Becker noted that new local restaurants continue opening at a rapid clip, a phenomenon that has stretched the industry’s workers thinner than ever before.
The arrival of new companies – particularly in the warehousing, distribution or manufacturing industries – has created high-paying jobs in other sectors. Those once working in the food or hospitality sector have taken notice of the new possibilities, with many choosing to transition to a new industry altogether.
This adds to challenges at places like Yardarm and Offshore, Becker explained.
“When we are hiring new people, it’s often because we’re paying more than another restaurant,” she said. “I feel like my business is taking them from another business that needs them. … We just keep stealing each other’s people and upping the ante.”
As the local economy attempts to emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, tangible signs of the ongoing hiring struggles are abundant.
At Dyersville (Iowa) Family Aquatic Center, the decision to close down the pool on the Fourth of July is the latest example of how workforce dynamics have stifled a return to normalcy.
Gavin Nadermann, parks and recreation director for Dyersville, said he has about 20 lifeguards this year, down from the typical 28.
“Most days, we are good, but there are some weekends when it becomes a little tougher,” he said.
He said lingering safety concerns still could be playing a role in the decision of those in the workforce.
“I am not sure if it has to do with COVID,” Nadermann said. “We didn’t open last year because there was the risk of exposure and this is a job where you are in contact with a lot of people. Perhaps there is some carryover from that.”
Hiring struggles are by no means limited to Iowa.
Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County (Wis.) Economic Development Corp., said he receives calls “every day” from area employers incapable of filling open positions. It’s an issue that spans multiple industries, ranging from retail and manufacturing, to hospitality and food service.
He said the realities of worker shortages have prompted companies to embrace new ways of thinking. Those that have never embraced concepts such as inclusion and diversity are beginning to do so in hopes of broadening their available pool of workers.
Manufacturing companies that have traditionally employed mostly men have made more earnest attempts to hire women. Companies that were once reluctant to hire former inmates are looking into that option.
Realizing that the current population in Grant County isn’t sizable enough to fill all available jobs, employers have taken a broader approach to the issue, contemplating ways to recruit people to the region.
But such efforts shed light on broader problems.
“Before we get to the point where we can bring a lot more people into the region, we need to get additional housing here,” Brisbois said. “We need to bolster day care. We need to address those things if we want to increase population. That’s the reality of what we are facing. Several things need to be fixed. It’s not something that can be quickly addressed.”