By Christine Graf
According to The Conference Board, a non-profit that conducts economic research, the current U.S. labor shortage could develop into one of the worst labor shortages of the last 50 years. Companies that employ blue collar and manual service workers are expected to be especially hard hit.
This country-wide labor shortage is being felt locally especially as businesses in Saratoga County gear up for the busy summer tourism season. According to Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, the labor shortage is impacting every sector of the local economy.
“It’s affecting every type of business and every type of employer—large and small, entry level and professional.”
Although employment shortages existed pre-COVID, they have worsened during the pandemic due in part to the increase in unemployment benefits offered by the federal government. Shimkus said there are other factors at play.
“There aren’t many more people unemployed in Saratoga County than there were before the pandemic. There are maybe 1,000 to 1,500 more. We might have been at around 4,500 people unemployed before, and we’re at about 6,000 now. That’s out of a population of 230,000 people.”
Although Shimkus acknowledged that some people are choosing not to work because they are earning more on unemployment, he said the situation is more complicated than that.
“You also have people who are on unemployment because the schools haven’t gone back into session or they can’t find childcare. You also have younger employees whose parents don’t want them to work at jobs where they are front-facing because of health fears. And you have a senior community that might have taken part-time jobs in front-facing jobs that aren’t going to do that because of health fears.”
Karen McLain, human resource manager at Longfellows Hotel, Restaurant, and Conference Center and Olde Bryan Inn, said some of their employees have not been able to return to work due to childcare issues. At the height of the pandemic, they furloughed almost all of their approximately 150 employees.
Approximately 50 percent of the furloughed employees have returned to work.
“It’s a critical shortage. We still can’t get enough people,” she said. “It’s really difficult. Even though unemployment says you have to be ready, willing, and able to work, they don’t seem to be enforcing that. We’ve had a lot of people making appointments for interviews and then they don’t show up.”
What is known as applicant ghosting—applicants scheduling interviews and not showing up—has become a major issue during the pandemic. It is happening because federal unemployment benefit recipients are required to show proof that they are seeking some kind of employment.
Capital Region construction and property management company owner Todd Drake said the practice is becoming commonplace.
“I set up interviews and the person doesn’t show up. It’s at the point where I’m shocked when people show up. It’s part of the unemployment game. It’s too easy to get long-term benefits. If you can make $900 a week not going to work, why would you go to work for $700?”
At Longfellows and Olde Bryan Inn, servers have been more likely to return to work because they typically make more money waiting tables then they do on unemployment. This is not the case for cooks and dishwashers who may be earning more by remaining unemployed.
“Some of our servers have come back, and the ones that do come back have to pull extra weight. But we have a real shortage in the kitchen. If we get the wedding business back, we might not have the staff to man it,” McLain said.
Although weddings have resumed, McClain said most of the weddings that have been booked for the coming months have been canceled or postponed.
“Weddings and larger parties are our bread and butter, and that’s been decimated. No one is having events. When they do, it’s small. Before the pandemic, we sometimes had five weddings on a weekend. Now we may have one with 40 people.”
Curtis Lumber in Ballston Spa currently has 30 full-time jobs available and has increased starting wages to $16 an hour. The company has also reduced the hiring age for part-time workers from 18 to 16.
“People are getting comfortable with unemployment,” said Doug Ford, vice president of sales and purchasing. “We are having to get creative with staffing in order to maintain the level of service we are known for. It’s a constant juggling act, and everybody pitches in where they can.”
According to Shimkus, businesses throughout the county are increasing wages and offering better benefits in order to attract new employees. Some companies are trying to recruit workers from other areas of the state, but the lack of affordable housing and public transportation has made it problematic.
Immigration reforms that were enacted during the Trump administration have further reduced the seasonal workforce many businesses rely upon. There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of temporary work visas that have been made available to foreigners. For many years, numerous businesses relied on these workers to fill summer jobs.
“We are in that perfect storm where we are coming out of this unbelievable disruptive pandemic, and because of all these things, we’re not going to have enough people this summer,” said Shimkus.
“Some businesses will have to reduce hours or not be open seven days a week. I think you are going to see wages go up, and once we know what NYRA, SPAC and Live Nation are doing, hundreds more job openings will be coming available. ‘Help wanted’ signs are everywhere, and businesses are using social media, advertising billboards, drive through job fairs, and virtual job fairs. They are doing anything and everything they can.”
Local employers can visit www.saratoga.org for information on how to post jobs for free on the internet at Help Wanted Saratoga County.