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Labor pool goes from ‘puddle’ to ‘wet spot’, official says

Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 5:41 PM EST
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - In an unusual turn of events, local unemployment rates for the month of December are lower than they’ve ever been before. But at the same time, businesses have a larger problem as they still struggle to find workers.

The last year at Shuler’s Restaurant in Watertown hasn’t necessarily been an easy one. In fact, when it comes to finding workers, owner Terry Williams says it has been “all over the place.”

“We’ll put an application out on Facebook or a job order and we’ll get ten responses, but then nobody shows up,” he said.

Just last week, the restaurant had to post a different Facebook message: “Due to a staff shortage we can’t open tonight.”

The labor shortage isn’t anything new. Restaurants, hospitals and schools have been plagued by staffing shortages. In December of 2020, unemployment rates hit 6 percent.

Fast forward to December 2021. Those unemployment rates hovered between 3 and 4 percent.

“This is totally unusual for anywhere in the north country,” said Cheryl Mayforth, executive director of the Jefferson-Lewis Workforce Development Board.

With unemployment rates so low, why are there so many job openings? Mayforth has an analogy about the labor pool.

“The pool has become a puddle,” she said. “When you have unemployment that low, I’m calling it just a wet spot now.”

Baby boomers are retiring and child care is harder to find. In fact, Mayforth says the area lost 50 percent of child care providers during the pandemic.

And finally, COVID forced schools to go remote with sometimes only a day’s notice. That uncertainty has had a big impact on the work force.

“The labor participation rate for females is down to the level it was in the 1970s,” said Mayforth.

Williams says as a result of all this, he’s had to cut back on a lot of hours.

“We used to be open Tuesdays through Sundays. We were open for lunch every day. It just wears our guys out. You know what I mean,” he said.

Mayforth says it’s likely more people are open to working, but they may need more skills to work some of the positions that are currently available.

“And that’s one of the issues that needs to be addressed,” she said.

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