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The uneven calculus of increased jobs, less unemployment and still too few workers
  • 8 min to read

You may have seen more “help wanted” signs flapping in the breeze around town lately. Maybe you even noticed reduced business hours at some local stores or restaurants. Or perhaps the wait time in the drive-thru line has been taking longer than it used to.

Around Gillette, and throughout the country, businesses are struggling to hire employees after more than a year of cutbacks, shutdowns and a problematic pandemic. And while diagnosing what’s becoming an employment crisis is simple, explaining it is much more complicated.

“(There’s) a lot more jobs now. A lot more jobs,” said Rick Mansheim, manager of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Gillette office. “The jobs have gone up, unemployment’s gone down, but there still seems to be (unfilled jobs) and I personally don’t understand that and can’t figure that out.”

At the end of June 2020, there were close to 2,000 Campbell County residents filing claims for unemployment insurance benefits. Nearly a year later as of May 21, that had fallen to 324 people filing unemployment claims, Mansheim said.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Before enjoying his food, Sam Petry fills out an employment application at Taco John’s along Boxelder Road on Thursday.

For reference, before the pandemic took hold, the week ending March 14, 2020, yielded 207 claims, according to Wyoming Department of Workforce Services data.

With unemployment shrinking close to pre-pandemic numbers, employers and officials are concerned there hasn’t been a corresponding increase of people getting back to work and filling those job openings.

In Campbell County, there are about 760 available jobs, Mansheim said.

Recently, Gov. Mark Gordon announced that Wyoming will pull back federal unemployment benefits, initially added as a supplement to state unemployment aid in response to the pandemic.

Gordon said that while the weekly $300 federal benefit was initially meant to help people through financial crisis related to COVID-19, it evolved into an incentive to not go back to work because people were making more on unemployment than they could working regular jobs.

The federal benefit now is “hindering the pace of our recovery,” Gordon said in a press release. “People want to work, and work is available. Incentivizing people not to work is just plain un-American.”

Those additional payments for unemployed Wyomingites will stop in a week, on June 19. But whether that becomes a turning point in the state’s mission to fill vacant jobs remains to be seen.

“People were definitely making more money with the federal unemployment and the state unemployment than when they were working in food service,” Mansheim said. “I hate to say this, but it’s true. It was easier for them to just say, ‘I’m going to wait.’”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Evelyn Rebaza carries a load of cups and napkins to a drive-thru window at Taco John’s on Boxelder Road on Thursday afternoon.

But while some workers may be opting to collect unemployment rather than actively seek employment, he said employers may have to entice that segment of the workforce with higher and more sustainable wages to not just hire, but also retain new employees.

Knowing that the clock is ticking on the expiration date for federal unemployment supplements in Wyoming, Mansheim said some employers may try and leverage that against employees, hoping to bring them on for cheap.

“On the flip side of that, and I would say the vast majority of employers are going to be fair with wages and offer what’s fair, but there’s going to be that small minority of employers that are also going to try to take advantage of people needing jobs and they’re going to offer a lower wage,” Mansheim said.

Looking for help

From the perspective of the hospitality industry in Gillette, Ramada Plaza Director of Sales Christen Burdette said finding workers has been a challenge, even as the hotel enters its busy summer season.

“We are still getting resumes and applications in, just not nearly as many as we would be seeing, especially during the summer months,” she said. “It’s been hard because people are making more money at home than they are at work.”

Making the situation more difficult is other businesses in the hospitality industry are competing for a reduced pool of potential new hires, causing some to raise their wages, she said. That’s an obvious win for workers, but an extra burden on an industry still gaining reeling from the toll COVID-19 took on tourism and travel.

“Hotels, stores, retail — it’s pretty much universal across the board. Everybody seems to be bumping it up,” she said.

But troubles finding workers and filling vacancies have not affected all businesses in town.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Windows double as large-scale hiring advertisements at the McDonald’s at the corner of South Douglas Highway and Camel Drive on Thursday afternoon. Although unemployment rates for the state and Campbell County have dropped considerably in recent months, many businesses report trouble hiring and retaining people willing to work.

At Bomgaars, Steve Stalcup said that the farm and ranch supply store he manages has not had any out-of-the-ordinary issues with hiring this past year.

“It’s really been normal,” Stalcup said. “I thought initially with all the temporary closings last year in town, throughout the spring and summer, (but) really it’s like every other year.”

Dating back to last spring, he said Bomgaars did not have to lay off or furlough employees. A couple of new positions were created to provide sanitation and cleaning services, but otherwise the store’s employee retention was unaffected by the national swings of the past year.

“What I’ve seen of Gillette, and probably Wyoming in general, is people like working here,” he said. “I don’t think that’s really an issue. As far as what we do, we’re somewhat insulated from the effects of an up-and-down economy. We sell necessities like seed, heating products.”

Burdette said that in the hospitality industry, employers have upped their starting wages to compete for and entice a limited pool of applicants. Stalcup would not say if he saw a similar trend in the retail sector, but regarding wages, he did note that “we try and stay competitive for what we do.”

In the meantime, those who are working at short-staffed establishments face unintended consequences of labor shortages by working longer hours, more shifts and generally taking on more responsibility for the same pay.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Austin Barelle carries a case of soft drinks to a refrigerator during an afternoon lull at Little Caesars on Camel Drive Thursday.

Burdette said Ramada Plaza began offering a bonus program each pay period for workers who show up on time each shift. On some level, she said it is a way to incentivize workers. But mostly, it is to recognize and appreciate people who have stayed on board with the company through the ups and downs of the past 15 months.

“Since we’re short-staffed, a lot of them are overworked and exhausted,” she said. “We’re trying to find ways to keep them happy since they’re working so hard and we appreciate them so much.”

Food service blues

Savanna Hadler, who manages the Taco John’s on Boxelder Road, has become all-too-familiar with the pandemic-sparked labor shortage. While employees have come and gone at a higher clip than she has seen in her nearly 18 years with the company, she and the other longtime workers at her fast food shop have made do with a lighter staff.

“Right now is probably the most exhausted all of us have been,” Hadler said. “It’s hard, because you’re just repeating over and over the same training steps with people and it’s like, ‘When is this going to stick?’”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Melissa Capiral takes a brief break between preparing food at Taco John’s Thursday afternoon along Boxelder Road in Gillette.

At her location, Hadler said the issue is more about finding workers who will stick it out and keep a job rather than work for a pay period or so before quitting.

“The struggle is retaining those employees,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a lack of people applying or getting them to walk through the door, it’s getting them to actually accept the job.”

Although the restaurant brought on more employees when it reopened its dining room last summer, Hadler said she has contemplated cutting dining room hours because of staffing issues.

“I’ve been with Taco John’s for almost 18 years and I’ve never experienced the turnover and the inability to retain employees that I have in the past 12 months,” she said.

Lately, prospective workers who physically walk in to apply are more likely to actually be interested in getting a job, she said, as opposed to those who are applying online only to fulfill their unemployment obligations.

Even with federal unemployment benefits ending and many who have already exhausted their state unemployment allotment, Mansheim said he doesn’t expect people will take jobs at significantly lower wages than what they made before.

“People probably did apply for jobs that they weren’t really interested in, but they did it to keep their unemployment active,” Mansheim said. “It’s not really how it’s intended, but the rules are set up in a way that they have to do job searches.”

Austin Barelle, a shift manager at Little Caesars, said his store had trouble finding workers a couple of months earlier before bringing on some new hires recently. But like Taco John’s, he said Little Caesars has struggled with retention.

Because of its proximity to Campbell County High School, Barelle said his shop is usually able to bring in some high school students when it needs help. But at a starting wage of about $8 an hour, he said keeping even younger employees can be hard.

“I know that’s not a lot, but if you’re going to work food, or even local businesses, they can’t hire at much more for a basic employee unless you’re willing to move up and show that you’re a hard worker,” Barelle said. “I just don’t feel there are enough people who want to do that.”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Bill Goetz helps a customer at the drive-thru of Taco John’s/Good Times Burgers along Boxelder Road Thursday afternoon.

The same employee retention problems are felt by Heather Green, a manager at the Gillette Taco Bell. Over the past year, she said keeping employees has been more of an issue than finding them.

“We lost a lot of employees with the shutdown of COVID because our lobby got shut down, all of that stuff last year,” Green said. “And it’s been almost a struggle since then to keep employees.”

Taco Bell does open interviews on Wednesdays. Last week, Green said no one showed up for the open interviews, which is unusual but also indicative of the local job landscape.

“Over the last year, it’s kind of been a come-and-go thing,” she said.

‘Crossing our fingers’

Although the national economy has continued to add jobs in recent months, new job growth has stayed below expected projections while still leaving many new job listings unfilled.

The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 559,000 jobs were added in May, dropping the national unemployment rate slightly to 5.8%.

In April 2020, the unemployment rate rocketed to 14.7%, the highest ever in U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics records dating back to January 1948.

While job growth and the unemployment rate have shown gradual improvement since the early pandemic unemployment spike, the figures still stand below pre-pandemic times.

The U.S. had a 3.5% unemployment rate in February 2020.

Campbell County peaked with 1,753 unemployment claims on June 20, 2020, and has mostly descended in the months since.

The latest national jobs report shows that leisure, hospitality, public and private education, health care and social assistance industries all had notable job gains last month.

But a June 8 report titled “Job Openings and Labor Turnover” from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows an overall rise in job openings, despite drops in unemployment and moderate gains in jobs.

In April 2021, the number of job openings in the U.S. increased by 998,000 to get to 9.3 million vacancies, the most since tracking began in 2000.

Although mining jobs may not be as abundant as they once were, Mansheim named the Wyoming Innovation Center as an example of future jobs potential in the county.

The facility north of Gillette broke ground this week and may not create a significant number of jobs itself, but new technologies may emerge from it that could be manufactured in Gillette.

“That’s the kind of economic change we need,” Mansheim said. “Something like a manufacturing boom. Maybe based on something that came out of that center, they came up with a product that will be in high demand and that’s what will start to turn our economy around.”

Ground just broke on the Wyoming Innovation Center, but in the more near future, the impending end to federal unemployment benefits may be an earlier indicator about the potential for Gillette’s economy to gain momentum in a positive direction.

While the June 19 cutoff may not spur everyone unemployed to start filling out applications, it could still take some of those “help wanted” signs down.

“I expect some of those people who were sitting back waiting for the unemployment to end because they were doing fine would now start looking at some of the jobs they worked at in the past,” Mansheim said.

Even with federal unemployment benefits ending in Wyoming, he doesn’t see people taking jobs at significantly lower wages than they used to earn.

“I think if you really want to turn things around, employers are just going to say, not only am I going to have job openings, but I’m going to make sure it’s a sustainable wage where people are actually going to make a living,” he said.

Whether Gordon’s edict will help lure workers isn’t known. Until then, some are skeptical while others hold out hope.

“We’re crossing our fingers,” Burdette said. “It’s definitely not going to hurt anything.”

Shane Stefanick, left, and Billy Houch move around in virtual reality simulations at Gillette College.

Douglas Macdonald, EWC gunsmithing student and Ayres Natural Bridge Park caretaker, shows off his handcrafted rifles to Kallie Edwards and her son Jett at EWC’s gun showcase and open house May 13.

Braidi Lutgen recently was hired as the Campbell County High School girls basketball coach after former coach Mitch Holst stepped down.

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Legacy restrictions extend again, to at least June 28

Another positive COVID-19 case associated with the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center has extended the facility’s clampdown on in-person visitation and other restrictions until at least June 28, barring any new positive cases.

Since re-entering Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services outbreak protocol again May 25, six positive COVID-19 cases have been picked up by the facility in its now routine weekly testing of staff and residents.

The facility must go two consecutive weeks without a positive test result to reinstate in-person visitation.

Campbell County Health will no longer identify whether positive cases are from staff or residents, citing that the outbreak protocol restrictions would be the same either way, said Dane Joslyn, CCH spokesperson.

“We hate the fact that we have to lock down the Legacy,” said Mary Lou Tate, CCH chief financial officer. “The restrictions that are placed upon us as a licensed facility are very extreme for COVID. Until the federal and state governments change their policies and allow us more leniency, there’s nothing we can do, otherwise we jeopardize the risk of being shut down. Then what would we do with our residents?”

“We can’t ship 100 or so residents back into the community with no place to live. That’s our concern, walking the fine line of complying with the very strict and extreme rules and regulations that are placed upon us versus trying to take care of the residents and help them have a great quality of life. We’re really walking that fine line as much as we can.”

At the Legacy, 36% of its staff is vaccinated, which is about half as much as the 73% of Legacy residents who have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

“While we’re disheartened that more of our staff have not elected to choose the vaccination, it is in line with what the general population is doing,” Tate said. “Just like the government can’t force the residents of Campbell County, we’re not going to force the staff at this time given the fact that it’s still an investigational drug.

“There are rules and regulations out there that we follow and we just don’t feel comfortable that we can mandate the employees to take the vaccine. We feel like if we do mandate, given others in the county and city and nation haven’t mandated, we would be losing staff, which would once again restrict our ability to take care of patients.”

After more than a year of lockdown from the pandemic, the Legacy brought back in-person visitation March 17. From there, the first positive COVID-19 test connected to the facility popped up April 21, putting it into CMS outbreak protocol.

Since then, the facility has gone through a series of ups and downs, with each week without a positive test drawing it closer to reopening as each positive extended the restrictions another two weeks.

The Legacy reopened from its initial outbreak May 18 until another positive COVID-19 test put it back into effective lockdown, where it has remained since.

“When the county rates are increasing, that’s when we see Legacy rates increasing,” Tate said. “When the county rates decrease, we see Legacy rates decrease. We’re not seeing anything different at the Legacy than we’re seeing in the community.”

While in-person visitation and social gatherings among residents are restricted inside the facility, virtual, outdoor and window visits are allowed.

The possible June 28 date for lifting restrictions is contingent upon two straight weeks without another positive staff or resident test. Any new positives associated with the facility will push that target date back another two weeks from the time of the positive.

“We find it disheartening that we cannot allow people to come in with masks and gowns to visit their loved ones,” Tate said. “It breaks our hearts, but once again, if we don’t follow the guidelines, we potentially could lose our license.

“These families would not have any place to send their family members then. While we appreciate the care these families want to give their residents, unfortunately, our hands are tied with that one.”