PORT ANGELES — One epidemic seems to have spawned another. As businesses fully reopen, staffing hasn’t kept up with demand and establishments from restaurants to retail to gyms to hospitals are scrambling.
Capacity has returned to 100 percent for restaurants, bars and gyms, according to Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement last week some 16 months after the original lockdown due to COVID-19.
But that hasn’t necessarily helped.
“In reality, nothing’s changed. It’s just made it more difficult,” said Rick Mathis, owner of Smuggler’s Landing in Port Angeles, one of many restaurant owners who have been putting in extra hours for months due to a lack of employees.
“We still have the same staffing issues.”
Mathis is frustrated. He enjoys the increased business, but can’t always live up to customers’ expectations.
“Customers come in expecting to be served,” he said, but he has only 40 tables available. He can’t open the upstairs portion of his establishment because he doesn’t have enough cooks and servers.
The problem is everywhere — banks, restaurants, hospitality businesses, retail shops — “pretty much across the board,” according to Colleen McAleer, Economic Development Council executive director.
“I’m hearing about restaurants having to shut down for certain days because of a lack of staffing and business owners being exhausted and having to take a few days off,” she said Friday.
Some blame Covid relief payments.
“Nobody’s working because they’re getting paid unemployment,” said John Gray, co-owner of Port Angeles Furniture.
“Most people aren’t going back because of the money,” he said. “We’re eroding the work ethic.”
Gray said that business was good during the lockdown, as people received stimulus money and fixed up their homes. Owners put in 50-60-hour weeks to keep up given short staffing.
“It’s a crazy time. Business is really good but nobody’s working.”
Others bring up other issues.
“Wages are part of the issue. also hours and day-care need,” said Jim Vleming, regional economist with the state Employment Security Department.
“We all had time to sit around and decide what we want to do. A lot of people still have day care issues. … it’s going to be an issue for a while until we get things shaken out a little bit.”
In addition to state unemployment, the federal government is providing $300 weekly in pandemic unemployment assistance until Sept. 4, McAleer said.
The state hasn’t required workers to list jobs they have sought in order to continue to get payments
“Starting Monday, that’s no longer the case, Vleming said.
Beginning Monday, people on unemployment will have to show they applied for three positions weekly.
“The positive thing for job seekers is that the most lucrative jobs are available now,” McAleer said.
“If they’ve been kind of waiting to see what happens from the contagious virus standpoint in the community, they ought to weigh that with an eventual increase in job seekers. Getting into the market now will offer a more lucrative opportunity.”
Help wanted signs can be seen all over the North Olympic Peninsula.
“We’re in the same situation, said Dave Gelland , store director of Forks Outfitters— Thriftway.
“I can’t spend time talking with you about it,” he told a reporter. “With the short staff, we’re swamped.”
Dave Kunze, assistant manager of The Co-op Farm & Garden in Sequim, said “just like everybody else, we’re doing the best we can.
“We’ve been fortunate; we have enough staff cross-trained where we can move people around as we need to,” he added, but still the business is short-staffed despite a newspaper ad that ran for a week or two and a help wanted sign on the readerboard for six to seven weeks.
“We had two applicants in that time,” he said, “and one was a minor and we couldn’t hire him.”
He said he knows of a number of businesses that can’t even open or are having to reduce hours.
Among those continuing reduced hours are the Olympic Peninsula YMCA.
“Hours are not open 100 percent but our goal is to return to normal operating hours by September, said Wendy Bart, CEO.
“We’re no different than other employers,”she said. “We’re fortunate to have enough staff to operate the hours we are open, but still we need more staff.”
In some cases, certification is needed, as for life guards for the Sequim Y’s pool.
Last week’s announcement did ease the situation in other areas though.
Prior to the guidelines, the gyms had a reservation system.
“Now we don’t need to do reservations,” Bart said. ” We don’t have to worry about the number of people in any given room. … For everyone, it feels liberating.
“We have been told by many members that coming to the Y has made a significant difference in their health,” Bart continued. “They are eager to have so much more flexibility.”
The Y aims to expand offerings “but sometimes we have to wait until we have the work force,” Bart said.
All three branches — in Port Townsend, Sequim and Port Angeles — are offering summer meals and summer camps, but in Port Townsend, meals provision has been especially busy.
“Pretty much any time the schools not providing food, we’re stepping in,” Bart said, offering these statistics: over the summer last year, the Y served close to 30,000 meals, in 2019, that number was 4,000.
It isn’t only restaurants, retail and gyms in need of workers, hospitals are under-staffed, too, according to Jennifer Burkhardt, chief human resources officer and general counsel at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles and Sequim.
OMC presently has both a record number of employees at 1,637 and a record number of openings at 211, she said.
The trend has been growth and expansion over the past five years, but it also is very difficult to hire now, Burkhardt said.
“All hospitals are facing shortages in key areas,” she said Saturday, naming in particular registered nurses, medical assistants and certified nursing assistants.
Overworked nurses and delays in service are an “eventual concern we are hedging against,” Burkhardt said.
Provider recruiting is one bright spot,” she added, saying the hospital has hired more than 30 health care providers over the past year.
McAleer expects to see improvement, although some elements will take time.
“We didn’t have enough child care to begin with,” she said. “I think demand will go down slightly in the fall,” when public schools resume in-person classes, but still about 460 children have “unmet child care needs.”
Widespread vaccination, the requirement for job-searches and reduction in pandemic relief payments are elements that will go into increase workplace staffing, McAleer said.
In the meantime, stimulus money “certainly has helped our economy,” she said, adding that sales tax revenues are healthy.
“There’s a lot of spending going on,” McAleer said. “It has helped those who typically have not had that spending capacity.”
Executive Editor Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3530 or at email@example.com.
Terry Ward, publisher of the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum, serves on the Olympic Peninsula YMCA and is vice chair of the Economic Development Corp. board of directors.