By Kate Klimesh,
The Driftless Journal and Public Opinion have had a large number of help wanted ads for several months, meaning many local businesses need to recruit new workers to help their businesses return to pre-COVID levels. Driving through the county there are a number of help wanted signs posted in shop windows, on roadsides and billboards to urge applicants to stop in and apply.
The fact is that many businesses have been unable to find the help necessary to extend their hours or restore full day-to-day operations. It’s easy to spot signs on business doors that denote an early close time due to lack of help or find businesses that must close for the entire day or more due to lack of staff.
This is particularly difficult for small businesses as they attempt to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of notoriously low revenues and lighter foot traffic following government-mandated closures, which crippled many businesses and caused several to close.
This trickle-down economic effect means less revenue for the local businesses, less sales tax collected for the county, and fewer shopping opportunities for locals as well as tourists. This affects every facet of local operations, reducing expected revenues that make up annual budgets for the county and cities.
Travel-related tourism alone in Winneshiek County contributed to $6.11 million in payroll expense, affecting 3,600 jobs according to the Travel Iowa 2019 Tourism Impact report. With people getting out and about more following lifted COVID-19 restrictions in May, this should be the time to make up those lost tourism dollars, but not having staff to accommodate the increased business hurts everyone’s bottom line.
“This is a great place to visit and retire,” Winneshiek County Economic Development and Tourism (WCEDT) Director Stephanie Fromm stated, “but we need workers to boost Decorah as the metro hub of northeast Iowa.” In response, there have been local businesses sharing a storefront and the staffing hours to ensure their business survives. Broker Leather and Gracie’s have successfully done that, as have Paradise Sun and Grit and Grace Boutique in Decorah.
As of June 2021, Iowa Workforce Development reports 450 Winneshiek County residents in the unemployment program, equal to 4% unemployment in the county’s workforce – a rate high not seen in the area (outside of the pandemic) since 2014. Out of the 19,991 population of Winneshiek County in 2019, there are 10,840 eligible in the labor force. Fromm noted, “We have the lowest incoming class coming into Decorah Community Schools this year at 84 kids. And there’s a distinct need for affordable housing options, including rentals in Winneshiek County, to increase the workforce.”
Supply shortages are commonplace as well, meaning many businesses cannot get the consistent supply of products they had been able to offer – this is a global problem felt on a local scale. As a customer, be understanding and stay calm – every business is facing a fragile balance of operations as best they can, balancing keeping the doors open, staffing and availability of products to sell.
Fromm added, “We need to get on one page and support efforts to increase and attract a quality workforce to the area. This employment bubble is going to burst, and we may not be able to recover if we don’t act quickly. Shop local and shop friendly.” Many businesses must ask existing staff to work more overtime to stay open, and many staff across the region have recently started new jobs as the employment market offers a wide range of career opportunities. It’s an easy thing to do – be nice.
Encourage, support, be patient and thank local businesses for continuing to provide their services or goods to the area. Get involved, apply to help wanted ads and promote the growth of the area to entice new folks to move to the area to fill vacant positions. “It’s not my problem, it’s not your problem, it’s the whole community’s problem,” Fromm countered. “We as consumers need to do a better job of letting owners know when a staff member does something amazing – it’s a paradigm shift.” Share the good and don’t dwell on the drama. That will just be the cost of doing business these days.