“We are short three waitresses, two drivers, two dishwashers, a pizza cook and kitchen help,” said Robert Greskoviak, owner of the Villa ‘D Carlo restaurant along Kenosha’s lakefront.
While more businesses in southeastern Wisconsin reopen their doors and expand operations as the pandemic wanes, “Help Wanted” signs are cropping up like spring dandelions. Many employers say they are finding it more difficult than ever to find workers.
“Everyplace across the state this is an issue. There is no question: There is a shortage of workers,” said Gov. Tony Evers during a Monday afternoon Zoom interview.
At Cree Lighting in Racine, as of Friday, there were 60 open jobs on the assembly floor and another couple dozen professional jobs open. Those positions are filling up slower than ever.
Having that many jobs open isn’t unprecedented for Cree, especially after consolidating and expanding operations locally in the past six years. But Director of Operations Brian Kinnune said he doesn’t remember a time it’s been so difficult to fill those positions. “It has taken time in the past, but it has not taken the time this has taken.”
In a similar situation on a smaller scale, at Franks Diner in Downtown Kenosha, co-owner Kevin Ervin said: “We’ve put ads out there for cooks, dishwashers and servers. They have been able to fill them. But it’s taken a lot longer than normal.”
Ervin said the eatery usually “gets deluged” with job inquiries this time of year. But now, “the last few months it’s just been dribs and drabs.”
Job openings, worker shortages
Work opportunities are coming back, finally, even if the workers haven’t arrived as quickly.
Dennis DuChene, president of the Kenosha Area Tourism Corporation, corroborated that southeast Wisconsin’s restaurants and hotels are experiencing challenges with staffing.
“The unemployment situation is challenging for a lot of businesses. I couldn’t tell you one place that isn’t having staffing issues,” DuChene said.
Between 2019 and 2020 due to the novel coronavirus, the total number of tourism related-jobs in Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties dropped by about 18%, from 14,921 to 12,173, according to a recently released state tourism report. Statewide, hospitality and tourism jobs decreased 22% from 2019 to 2020.
As CNN reported last month, “More than a year into the pandemic, the economic recovery has picked up speed. Employers added 916,000 jobs (in March) — the largest gain since August — and the unemployment rate fell to 6%. Several hard-hit sectors, including restaurant and bars, saw big improvements.
“Still, the US economy has 8.4 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic began. And 4.2 million people — or 43% of the unemployed — have been out of work for at least six months, which makes it harder for them to land new jobs.”
On the local level, as of March of this year, unemployment in Kenosha County was at 5.2%, up from 4.4% March a year before and 4.1% in 2019, according to tentative numbers from the Job Center of Wisconsin. Racine County’s unemployment rate is at 5.9%, up from 4.7% one year ago and 4.3% in 2019. Similarly in Walworth County, the unemployment rate is at 4.7%, up from 3.8% a year ago and 3.6% in 2019.
“I think everyone is in the same boat, struggling to find help,” said Tricia Nelson, who owns Bristol 45 Diner in Kenosha County with her husband. “We’re more fortunate than some who have had to cut hours or days because they can’t find the help.”
The diner, which reopened May 26 after shutting down last spring, has been able to operate its usual hours but currently could use a busser/dishwasher and another server.
Simple Café, 525 Broad St. in Lake Geneva, will be closed on Wednesdays through at least the month of May because of a staffing shortage.
In tourism-heavy Lake Geneva, Simple Cafe announced in April that it was closing on Wednesdays until more workers can be hired.
Mars Resort, a lakeside eatery, followed suit soon after. “We will be closing on Tuesdays indefinitely and limiting carry-out orders nightly based on available staff. We will re-open on Tuesdays once we find people that are qualified and want to work,” Mars Resort posted on Facebook over the weekend.
Simple Cafe co-owner Tom Hartz (who was Lake Geneva’s mayor from 2018-2020) said in late April that his restaurant, which typically has between seven to 10 cooks on staff, needed three more cooks.
Hartz decided to close the restaurant one day a week because he felt his cooks were starting to burn out. “That’s why we decided to close on Wednesdays,” he said, “so we can give them a break and give them some time where they can get their errands done, sleep late or just relax.”
The pay at Simple Cafe depends on a person’s experience, according to Hartz: a dishwasher usually is paid $10 an hour while the current lead line cook earns $20 an hour.
Bigger businesses left waiting, too
Colbert Packaging Corp. in Kenosha — a producer of packaging and specialty containers for the pharmaceutical and personal care industries — also is struggling to fill positions as its business expands. Colbert makes packaging for COVID test kits and many other products at its facilities in Kenosha and Elkhart, Indiana.
Since the pandemic began, Colbert added 40 new customers and has seen an increase in orders from existing customers who are responding to their own COVID-19 pandemic needs, said Colbert President John Lackner.
Lackner said he has more than 20 openings that he needs to fill for three shifts, with pay starting at $14 per hour for full-time employees, additional pay opportunities after 90 days as well as benefits including health insurance, dental insurance and a 401(k).
To assist with recruitment, Colbert offers an employee referral bonus; it also works with local high schools and has a youth apprentice program.
Likewise, Cree recently increased its referral bonus, is connecting with high schools as far away as Gurnee, Illinois, and has seen its human resources department get creative (and old school) in its hunt for workers.
Uline's massive warehouses near the intersection of Highway 142 and Interstate 94 in Kenosha County.
Cree declined to share what its starting rate for new hires is, but officials there said they offer a “competitive rate” compared to major nearby Kenosha County employers such as Uline (reported in September as $23 per hour) and Amazon ($15 per hour).
In addition, Cree offers a pension, on-site health care, productivity incentives and cross-training opportunities.
Where job postings alone on Indeed.com or other online job boards may have worked before, Cree more recently branched out in its hiring practices, finding success by spreading flyers in populated areas and by having employees strike up conversations with strangers at the supermarket who may be looking for work.
“We have had to put extra work into it,” said Geoff Fry, Cree vice president of operations, said. “We put the pedal to the metal. We’re now seeing the results.”
Adam Rogan of the Journal Times; Stephanie Jones and Dennis Hines of the Lake Geneva Regional News; and James Lawson and Heather Poyner of the Kenosha News contributed to this report.