Is it true that you just can't get good help these days? It is for some local business owners and managers who blame enhanced unemployment benefits for their struggles.

An informal survey of those who are hiring, and conversations with local experts on workforce development and the economy, offers a range of opinions and some opportunistic solutions.

But meanwhile, those enhanced unemployment checks at $300 bucks a pop beyond regular benefits are taking some heat from local employers.

Labor shortage hits hard

The Lockport McDonalds paid for a signboard to promote its $16 new hourly rate. Businesses of all kinds across the Niagara region are having a hard time filling positions.

Zach Kibler, manager for SiteOne Landscape Supply in Lockport has never seen anything like the challenges he's faced hiring someone to work in shipping and receiving. SiteOne, which ships to about 600 landscapers across the country, has posted a help wanted sign at its Lockport Road location and Kibler says his job openings typically draw a variety of applicants. But, in three months, he has interviewed just one applicant for the post, and that person chose to stay in his old job. 

Kibler is not alone in his search for staff. "The customers that come in here say their biggest issue is nobody can find anybody to work," he said. 

When asked his thoughts on the matter, he was blunt. "The honest truth?" he asked. "Why would people want to work if they’re getting paid more than we are to sit at home?"

Of course, the empty post makes things tougher on his small staff.  

"We’re struggling because we can't find anybody," Kibler said. "The demand is through the roof. So everybody has four titles instead of just one."

Kevin Woods, of Kevin Woods Heating and Cooling Co. of Wheatfield, also feels enhanced unemployment benefits are to blame. He had four guys on his team. Now he has just one he can count on and finds himself often working alone, dragging furnaces and air conditioners around by himself. 

"I’ve never had problems finding people. It’s crazy," he said. "They’d rather sit home on the couch and make the free money," he said of those receiving unemployment insurance."

The enhanced unemployment benefits come from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act which was signed March 2020 by President Donald Trump, and the $1.9 trillion Corona Virus Relief Package President Joe Biden signed in March. For the unemployed, additional benefits to weekly income-based unemployment insurance checks, were $600 a week until last July, and since January are an extra $300 per week until Sept. 5. 

WORKERS WEARING MORE HATS

For some businesses, particularly seasonal businesses like hotels who historically have trouble finding workers, hiring challenges force bosses to work in restaurants and on the floors. 

At the Mariani Hotel Group, managers are making beds and cleaning rooms, according to Michael Marsch, the group's VP, which owns the Holiday Inn, The Niagara Riverside Resort, and the DoubleTree Hotel in Niagara Falls, as well as two hotels in Canada.

"We've had managers be hands-on in the hotels and restaurants," Marsch said, noting that although his hotels are at about 50 percent occupancy right now, he expects things to get more challenging when tourist season goes into full swing this summer and hotels are at 100 percent occupancy.

Despite enhancing employee benefits and some pay adjustments, Marsch said, it's extremely challenging to find and retain staff. "Frankly it's a consistent process, getting people to show up for interviews, return your calls and once they get on board, having them stay."

Leaders at Horizon Health Services and Horizon Villages, companies that serves those with addictions or mental health issues, also find staffing in a pandemic is made more complicated by lengthy compliance and hiring procedures they must go through to ensure staffers are able to deal with the sensitive problems faced by those the companies serve. 

This comes at a time when pandemic anxieties seemed to have created a greater need for Horizon's services. "We have a particularly high need for staffing, due to the community’s increased need for mental health and substance use services,” said Kelly Pogore, director of employee services for Horizon. 

As the distress and isolation of the pandemic has caused some mental health and addiction issues to surface, the changes in lifestyle during the year-long pause have caused others to contemplate their career choices. Pogore said her industry publications are writing about a "Turnover Tsunami" as people reexamine their lives post-pandemic.

"We're going to see people across the board make changes," she said. 

But, it's not just the enhanced benefits to blame for worker reluctance, experts say. There are COVID-19 fears, childcare matters, and even the stimulus checks given to most Americans which may have further impacted the urgency to find employment.

The pandemic has shaken up everything and when the dust settles, things may never be the same. "The world has changed and everyone has to make an adjustment," said Niagara University Economics Professor Dr. Tenpao Lee. 

Beyond COVID-19, the job market is totally different than it was pre-pandemic when unemployment was at 3.5 percent, considered to be nearly full employment in the US, Lee said.

In April of 2020, levels rose to 14 percent unemployment and are now around 6 percent, "so the current unemployment from a historical point of view is really not that high," the economics professor said. 

What has changed is the workplace in general, Lee explained. Some businesses look completely different now, including restaurants, sports and tourism industries, which are facing reduced demands or working with reduced staff.

Every industry is impacted and all workers may need to think about change, Lee said. "If the demands not high, you have to expand your credentials to other industries," he said.

A MULTITUDE OF OPPORTUNITIES

This is where worker training opportunities come in. The region's job training experts offer a multitude of opportunities.

Kurt Stahura, a Niagara Global Tourism Institute scholar and director of research, says the job climate is a boon to the youngest members of the workforce, who will be able to get experience in more roles when they take seasonal positions in tourism-related businesses such as hotels.

"What a wonderful opportunity to see how the entire entity works, front desk, rooms, marketing," said Stahura, who is also an NU professor. "You'll get a broad perspective because people will be wearing many hats, as suggested by the general managers working in rooms. 'It looks to be a difficult thing, but it could be a wonderful well-rounded experience."

Charles Diemert, Orleans Niagara BOCES workforce development coordinator, says those considering enhancing their skills have plenty of opportunity at BOCES, where courses are geared toward filling the demands of "sectors now screaming for help," including health care and manufacturing.

Because BOCES already has several nursing classes in progress, the focus is on 12-week summer courses offering adults training in manufacturing fields, including welding, machining, building, electrical and heating and cooling trades.

"There's all kinds of funding available to reduce or eliminate the cost of the classes for adult students," Diemert said. "If anyone is thinking of a career change, now is the time."

The director of WorkSourceOne in Niagara County, Don Jablonski, is working to fire up the lukewarm workforce response to jobs, but doesn't blame it on enhanced unemployment benefits or stimulus check alone because some job seekers also have childcare concerns and COVID-19 fears.

RETRAINING SO WORKERS CAN WIN

Either way, workers can win in this job climate.

"There's an unprecedented demand for workers," Jablonski said. "If someone has a skill, the world is quite frankly their oyster," 

Even an unskilled job hunter has the upper hand today.

"If someone has a can-do attitude and is willing to work and learn, this is the perfect time to go out and be a job seeker because you will go out and receive multiple offers," Jablonski added.

For those who are actively job hunting, WorkSourceOne is holding a job fair at Oppenheim Park on June 9, and setting up more in Lockport and North Tonawanda. 

For more details, visit Worksource1.com to sign up for text and email alerts. Information on the Orleans Niagara BOCES classes can be found at www.onboces.org.

Meanwhile, for those who worry about the inflation that is likely to follow when the trillions of dollars of financial help and incentives are given out, Niagara University's Dr. Lee, quoted above, has a calming response. In any economy, there are always issues, Lee said.

"Right now we are worried about unemployment issues," Lee explained. "Potentially we’re looking at the inflation issues one year from now. There's always an issue.

"You have to focus on the current issue," Lee said. "Once you solve the current issue, a new issue will come up. That’s the beauty of economics."

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