Private and public sector employers struggle to fill positions
By Tim Rowland
Steve Gratto is a school bus driver in Schroon Lake — nothing so remarkable about that, except that Gratto is also superintendent of Schroon Central Public Schools, pressed into moonlighting behind the wheel out of necessity.
In a labor market stretched to the breaking point, Gratto acquired a commercial driver’s license to pilot kids to school and sporting events. “Driving a bus is fun, everyone should try it,” Gratto said.
Like many Adirondack employers, Gratto is on the lookout for relief.
Teachers at Schroon are a tight knit group and defections are rare, Gratto said, but hourly employees are more likely to chase help wanted pitches offering a better deal.
That there is competition for workers nationwide is not news. But in the Adirondacks, there are endemic and structural peculiarities that have employers worried about the labor shortage, not just for their own businesses, but for the health of the tourist trade on which they depend.
“The way this is going, Adirondack visitors are going to end up with no place to eat, no place to shop and they’re going to have to clean their own rooms,” John Nemjo, president of Mountainman Outdoor Supply Company, which runs three recreation-related businesses in Old Forge and Saratoga Springs.
As he ramps up for the season, Nemjo said he would normally have 18 to 22 employees, but is having to make do with eight. His competitor for guided kayaking trips on the Moose River shut down for lack of help, but Nemjo said his newfound monopoly status hasn’t paid any dividends since he can’t find help either.
Everything, it seems, from a proliferation of short-term rentals to a paucity of automobile parts, is conspiring to create an employment gridlock that has no obvious solution.
Initiated by the pandemic, most say, the shortage of employees remains critical entering the summer high season, which brings an intense wave of vacation traffic that more or less begins when schools let out and runs through Labor Day, or more lately, Columbus Day. Many businesses count on these 10 to 15 hectic weeks to generate enough income to pad the balance of the year when things are slow.
That means it’s critical to be open seven days a week in the summer, but a number of small businesses simply lack the staff to do so. Others plead with employees to work longer hours, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Workers today are in the driver’s seat and can dictate terms— and they know it. Some employers have had to go, hat in hand, back to employees they’ve previously fired and beg them to return.
The stories leave business owners shaking their heads. One Essex County worker decided he wanted to grind stumps for the summer, so he bought a stump grinder and walked away from a construction job paying $39 an hour with another $23 worth of benefits. A young woman trained five days to be a desk clerk, then on the first day she was to fly solo, she called in to say she couldn’t make it because her boyfriend had taken the car.
“The labor market today is just — weird,” said Tammy Brown, owner of the Blue Ridge Motel in North Hudson, as she and her husband Bob recounted one story after another. “There’s been a shift, and I don’t know how to explain it.”
COVID 19 seemed to change the ground rules, she said, as people experienced less structure and more family and leisure time. There also seems to be a greater inclination to live for the moment, meaning employees value a quick paycheck over an enduring career — a reversal of the traditional approach.
“People are only looking at dollar signs right now,” said Matt Stanley, town of Jay supervisor and general manager of the North Pole theme park in Wilmington. “Money is what’s driving them.”
Employers can raise starting pay, but that risks profit margins and antagonizing loyal employees, who feel cheated unless their own checks are correspondingly fattened. And those costs are passed on to tourists. Stanley said North Pole admission has doubled since 2000 when it was $20.
Government, meanwhile, which employs 30% of the North Country labor pool, cannot rapidly raise salaries because its budgets are effectively capped and only revised once a year. Stanley said town supervisors have lamented an atmosphere in which a kid hired as a lifeguard could outearn an employee of the town highway crew.
That doesn’t count benefits, but supervisors and county department heads have had trouble selling the advantages of benefit packages and pensions. “We’re doing a little better, but it’s still not great,” said Mike Mascarenas, deputy county manager of Essex County, where 10% of 500 positions have gone unfilled.
But the private sector has its own set of headaches. Employers have offered signing bonuses, life insurance, cheap housing and other perks. Mary Jane Lawrence, chief of staff at the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, said the larger hotels arranged living quarters in advance of the 300 to 400 international workers arriving under temporary, J1 visas.
Those workers were kept out or limited because of COVID protocols in 2020 and 2021. This year, workers are expected to be back to pre-pandemic levels. “Lodging is looking better than last year, but we’re still going to see some struggles,” Lawrence said.
ROOST, which attempts to attract tourists, is now using its broad web and social media reach to try to attract employees, and not just for the summer. A permanent solution, Lawrence said, depends on “a fully functioning, vibrant community, with more people living and working here.”
Lawrence and others noted that as population and school enrollments decline, there simply aren’t enough job hunters to supply demand.
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There is some evidence that an overall increase in hospitality wages is having an effect. In 2021, leisure and hospitality pay rose 12.4%, according to state data. At the same time, employment ticked up 1.7%, with hospitality and leisure accounting for most of the increase.
But money only goes so far. Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun sits on the board of the Sunmount center for people with disabilities, where on any given day there is a systemwide need for 30 to 50 employees who, with a high school degree and a background check, could walk into a $50,000-a-year job. Within a year they could be making $85,000 with overtime, but still there are few takers.
In the village, Maroun said, the police force is down four officers, a new bank can’t open because it can’t find a receptionist and a local restaurant has been forced to shut down two days out of the week for lack of help.
“It’s hard to believe, but it’s true,” Maroun said. “I remember when people used to be begging for summer jobs.”
Maroun said he believes there are people out there who could work, but like motel-owner Brown, says the coronavirus changed the game. Conventional wisdom held that when federal stimulus and enhanced unemployment benefits ran out job-seekers would surface, but that hasn’t happened — leaving employers puzzled how people are making do financially.
It’s not always a choice. Some who could work can’t, for lack of transportation or daycare.
The high cost and unavailability of used cars and spare parts has had an effect, Brown said, along with costs of child care, around $300 a week. “That’s half your paycheck,” she said.
The short-term rental phenomenon that has sucked up residential housing — even for people who want to move to and work in the Adirondacks — is being felt in other ways as well: Hotels are having trouble finding maid service because cleaning vacation rentals is far more lucrative.
The Adirondacks is getting by, employers such as Nemjo, Brown and Stanley say, because they have a core of workers who go the extra mile. Also not to be lost is the toll the labor shortage is having on small business-owners themselves — some of whom report working 15-hour days j to keep their establishments running.
“I’m exhausted,” Brown said. “In March I finally closed the motel down for a week and drove to Tennessee. Of course the whole time I was there I was answering reservation calls.”
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