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Businesses Challenged by Jobless Rate

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The national unemployment rate for September was 3.5 percent, down from 3.7 percent the previ- ous month, and the lowest since 1969. The federal Labor Department said there were 7.1 million job openings at the end of August, which is theoretically enough to provide employment to every unemployed person in the U.S.

Vermont’s most-recently reported un- employment rate was even lower, at just 2.1 percent, the lowest of any state in the nation.

This is good news for workers and is causing wages to rise faster than infla- tion (although not by much), but it is causing problems for businesses across the state, including local ones, who say they are having a hard time hiring peo- ple and that employees are now more likely to switch jobs or quit, knowing they can probably find work elsewhere.

School districts statewide are finding it difficult to hire school bus drivers, according to VTDigger. In Chittenden County, restaurants are struggling to find employees, Seven Days reported. The same challenges are hitting employ- ers in Washington County, where the latest unemployment rate was 1.9 per- cent, down from the 5.8 percent peak 10 years ago in the midst of the Great Recession.

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Fred Bashara Sr.—whose businesses include Montpelier’s Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center, the Capitol The- atre, laundromats, and car washes—said hiring has been more challenging for the past year or so. “We find it very, very difficult to get people to even come in the door for an interview,” he said. “At the hotel, we need housekeepers, kitchen staff, servers—everything.”

“I wish the government, instead of locking people up at the border, would send them up here,” Bashara com- mented. “We could put them to work.”

Bashara said he starts workers above the minimum wage, gives them raises every few months, and offers health insurance, dental, vision, and sick leave. The hotel and conference center em- ploys 115 people and his other busi- nesses employ 35 to 45 in total, he said.

“Every business in town is affected by this [worker shortage],” Bashara said. “Fortunately, we have a lot of good staff who are sticking with us and increasing their hours or working overtime.”

Vermont Creamery, a fast-growing cheese and butter company in Webster- ville, has 127 employees and is seeking 19 more, with openings including main- tenance support, cheese production, sanitation, and cheesemaking.

Eliza Giroux of the company’s human resources department said that even with a starting wage of $16.50 per hour, com- prehensive benefits, and free company products, “We have a hard time finding candidates to join our family. For our operations team, we have added 33 roles in 2019, and finding those 33 potential employees has been a struggle.”

Vermont Creamery recently altered its recruiting strategy to focus on under- employed candidates, rather than on the unemployed, with some success, she said. Giroux noted the company tries to offer a fun work place, even offer- ing massages, and is continuously seek- ing to improve the work–life balance for employees. “Still, with the massive growth we are experiencing, the number of interested candidates is not enough,” she said.

“I wish the government, instead of locking people up at the border, would send them up here,” Bashara commented. “We could put them to work.”

Tim Hutchins of Hutchins Roofing and Sheet Metal Company in Barre said demand for roofing is up, and he could take on more work if he had more employees, but says it is difficult to hire right now. “The low unemployment rate is great, but it is tough for businesses,” he said. “If you don’t have a job now, you probably don’t want one.”

Hutchins has 12 employees now, down from 24 or 25 many years ago when the firm did a variety of other work besides roofing. “It’s hard work,” he said. “The average age of our employees is 50. There won’t be many blue-collar workers down the road. Kids today want to work with technology.”

Adrienne Brownlee, owner of Alla Vita, an olive oil and balsamic vinegar store in downtown Montpelier with five employees, also said hiring and keep- ing workers is a challenge. “I’ve been in business for five-and-a-half years and never had any problems until nine or 10 months ago,” she said. “We’re having a lot of turnover, which we never had in the past.”

Brownlee said she pays well and spends a lot of time hiring and training em- ployees, only to see them leave. And in this economy, they can easily find other jobs. “It’s very frustrating,” she said. One recent hire moved to Montpelier from the West Coast. “She only stayed three months, then moved to Burlington because she said there were not enough other young people in Montpelier to hang out with,” Brownlee said.

The worker shortage is affecting Brownlee’s business in other ways too. “I had one customer who wanted to mail 300 bottles of a maple syrup that we carry to numerous addresses nationally and internationally,” she said. “I called the syrup producer, and she said they couldn’t fill the order because they were short-staffed.”

It seems there are only two things that might ease the local employment crunch for businesses: an increase in the number of workers in Vermont, which appar- ently is not happening at the moment, or an economic downturn. The latter is not a solution that most business owners—or workers—would welcome.