Employers Struggle to Fill Positions Even as Jobless Claims Remain High

As businesses start to reopen, unemployment insurance claims drop slightly and many job openings remain vacant

By Maggie Dresser
The Pocketstone Cafe in Bigfork on Dec. 11, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As the summer tourist season approaches in Bigfork, Pocketstone Café owner Dave Vale has been conducting his annual spring employee search to ensure he’s well staffed for the normally busy summer season.

After his restaurant was closed for nearly two months amid the pandemic, he plans to reopen on May 21, but he’s having a hard time finding back-of-house workers this year, although the front of the house is fully staffed.

“We’re having a little bit of trouble finding employees because most of the people that are on unemployment are finding that it’s more lucrative to continue being unemployed rather than finding employment,” Vale said.

Positions like dishwashers and cooks generally earn about half as much money as servers who mostly rely on tips, and Vale speculates that people who would potentially fill those positions are making more money off of their unemployment insurance claims. Vale said he hasn’t received much response from the ads he’s posted to recruit kitchen cooks.

Since the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed at the end of March, unemployed individuals now receive an additional $600 per week on top of their unemployment insurance claim, meaning many are making more money with those benefits compared to their former lower-wage jobs.

As of May 9, Flathead County saw 7,477 continued unemployment insurance claims, compared to 8,757 claims as of April 4, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. Initial claims in Flathead County dropped to 510 on May 9 compared to 3,293 claims on April 4.

As businesses reopen, Job Service Kalispell Manager Laura Gardner reminded Montanans that they must have specific reasons for refusing to return to work, like lack of childcare.

“If an employee refuses available work due to a non-COVID circumstance, such as the amount of benefit they are receiving through unemployment is larger than their former wages, they may not continue to receive unemployment benefits,” Gardner said. “So continuing to file for unemployment when work is available can constitute fraud.”

In response to this, employers have been reaching out to Job Service Kalispell to inquire about whether former employees are allowed to continue filing for unemployment, which Gardner reaffirms that they are not.

Gardner recommends that employers document the work offer, including the date, change in wages or hours and the reason given for the refusal. If an employee is able to show good cause for not returning to work, such as the business isn’t complying with local health orders or the employer isn’t able to make accommodations for a vulnerable individual, the employee could potentially continue receiving unemployment benefits.

While many employees are returning to work with reduced hours, Gardner says those individuals could still be eligible for partial unemployment benefits to make up for those losses.

According to the National Labor Exchange, Kalispell had more than 300 job openings as of May 14, with 62 in Columbia Falls and 37 in Whitefish. Job openings range from service industry positions to nearly 30 positions at Kalispell Public Schools and more than 20 at Kalispell Regional Healthcare.

Stacy Rosenlund, owner of Wheat Montana in Kalispell, is also having trouble finding staff this spring. Because she was able to operate the restaurant’s drive-thru service while many businesses were forced to close their doors, she was able to keep all of her staff. But she hires more staff this time of year for the summer season, and she usually has a stack of applications to sift through. In the past few weeks, however, she’s only received two. When she called the applicants, neither replied back.

“I think that a lot of people are on unemployment and it sounds like they’re doing fairly well,” she said. “It sounds like they’re doing better than maybe they would if they had a job from us.”

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