CADILLAC — The fact that there aren't enough people living in this area to fill all the jobs, as well as the fact that a solution to this problem isn't forthcoming anytime soon, is becoming painfully apparent to local businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry.
Mike Blackmer, owner of several businesses in the area, including four restaurants and a race track, said before the COVID-19 pandemic, he usually would be able to find someone reliable in about one in every three hires.
"You could get people," Blackmer said. "If you paid a certain amount of money, you could find people. Right now, you can't pay them enough. They're happy as can be staying home and making more money off unemployment (than they do at work). You'll have an employee work for a week or two, then go somewhere else. It's killing the restaurant industry."
Every time a former employee applies for unemployment benefits, Blackmer receives a notification from the state. Blackmer said he has to look over each notification and respond back to the state with information such as whether or not the employee is misrepresenting their employment status in order to receive assistance. Every day, Blackmer said he goes through a thick stack of these notifications — more than he's ever seen in all his years as a business owner.
"It's a nightmare the amount of mail I get from UIA (Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency)," Blackmer said. "It's unbelievable."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Blackmer said he's lost about half of his workforce — either as a result of COVID-related layoffs or voluntary resignations.
As a result of not being able to find workers, Blackmer had to close down one of his newest restaurants — the Sultan's Table inside the Lake Cadillac Resort, which he opened just a few weeks ago.
"We didn't do things right," Blackmer said. "It was too quick and I don't think we were ready. We weren't able to provide good service to customers. I don't have an answer right now (as to when they'll be reopening the Sultan's Table). I think we need to rethink a few things."
In addition to closing the Sultan's Table, Blackmer decided to close some of his other restaurants certain days of the week to give overworked staff some time off.
The worker shortage is so pronounced right now that Blackmer said some businesses have turned to "buying employees." Blackmer said a number of his cooks have been approached by other restaurants who tried to entice them away from their current jobs with promises of higher pay and better benefits.
Staff shortages also have affected the quality of the products they provide. For instance, Blackmer said it's not uncommon for them to receive complaints from customers about how long it takes for food to be served.
"Service is going to be affected if we don't have enough workers," Blackmer said. "We ask that customers please try to have patience right now. It's a huge problem and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better."
Similar to how Blackmer closes his restaurants on certain days to give staff time to recharge, Connie Freiberg, owner of the Raven Social in downtown Cadillac, said they made the decision to close for half the day every Sunday and all day every Monday, which they have dubbed "mental health Monday."
Freiberg said when they were open seven days a week, the tenuous staffing situation made it difficult for employees to relax on their days off, since they could be called in at any time if, for instance, someone didn't show up for work.
"They weren't really mentally free from the restaurant," Freiberg said. "I don't know if we'll ever be back seven days a week. We're not making as much money as we used to but this is better for my staff's wellbeing. Life isn't all about work."
Freiberg said she's noticed things are starting to slowly improve on the staffing front, especially after the acquisition of the "dynamic duo" of Steve and Billie Gorsky — a husband and wife team who worked for many years as the chef and head bartender of Hermann's European Cafe. Accompanying Steve and Billie were several other former Hermann's employees, as well.
"A lot depends on finding the right people," Freiberg said. "It's been a dramatic change for us."
Chantal Fitzgerald, general manager of Culver's Restaurant, a regional fast food chain with a location in Haring Township, said while they haven't had to reduce hours as a result of staffing issues, they've created an incentive system to attract new workers and retain their existing ones.
"We’ve raised pay and added 'stay on' bonus and perks to entice the right people to come apply," Fitzgerald said. "And of course the same perks and such for existing crew."
Fitzgerald said she believes the challenge finding employees is due to the combination of attractive unemployment benefits and reluctance of many to come back to the work in the era of COVID.
"It’s been easier for some to stay home and make more money than working would, and they’ve adjusted to that lifestyle," Fitzgerald said. "Also, as a business we have to protect our employees and customers (and license) by enforcing masks and not everyone is on the same page with those so I think that deters people who will not wear them. Obviously that’s slowly loosening up but I do think some people are making job decisions based off masks, customer contact, etc."
Caitlyn Berard, president of the Cadillac Area Chamber of Commerce, said it isn't just restaurants that are feeling the effects of the current worker shortage, which she added isn't just a regional problem — it's something that is happening around the globe.
What's more, Berard said while the worker shortage is more of a problem now than a few years ago, it was pretty bad even before the pandemic.
"The last five years, it's affected us dramatically," Berard said. "It's an employee's market — something we haven't seen in a long time."
While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the worker shortage to a degree, Berard said the roots of the problem lie in the fact that technology has increased the productive ability of businesses in recent years and there isn't the population base in many areas to meet the demand for employees.
"As technology grows, so do our businesses," Berard said. "They have the capacity to go way beyond the areas they currently serve."
Population dynamics also have played a significant role in the worker shortage.
According to an analysis conducted by Networks Northwest, since 2013, the population in this area ages 35 to 54 has decreased significantly, as has the population under 19 years, indicating continued future decreases of working-age populations. At the same time, all population groups over the age of 55 have increased.
"The area is especially appealing to retirees, causing a shift in population demographics — retirement age numbers are growing while the working age population is declining," the study concludes. "Housing, childcare and transportation costs are high, yet the distribution of jobs across the economy is heavy in lower-paying service jobs, many of which are seasonal. ... This feeds a stigma associated with the region about the lack of high-paying, professional-level jobs."
Berard said they've been working hard to market the benefits of living in Northern Michigan to attract more people here and hence increase the pool of potential workers but without certain infrastructure pieces in place, those efforts can have only minimal success.
"We don't have political unrest, or killer bees, or hurricanes," Berard said. "But people can't move up here if they don't have anywhere to live. Employers are willing to work to help employees with childcare and transportation but housing is the big challenge."