Coastal Labor Shortage Highlights Bigger Problems

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
The city of Depoe Bay

Businesses go to great lengths to attract workers in preparation for the summer. 

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Kelly Mauer and Danielle Shipp became first-time business owners when they purchased the Cannon Beach Chocolate Cafe in April 2020. As longtime employees, the plan was for the founders to pass the torch when they retired. Despite being two months into the pandemic, Mauer and Shipp went through with the purchase. It was a gamble that is now paying off. 

“It was definitely nerve-racking. We had been planning the takeover for such a long time. We said ‘Let’s just do it and hope for the best.’ I’m really glad we did. Things around here have been crazy busy business-wise,” says Mauer. “People want to get out of the city.” 

The cafe had its most profitable winter in 2021. Despite a year of lockdown, or possibly because of them, the cafe is on track for a record-breaking summer. Mauer describes long daily lines out the door. 

Mauer 1Kelly Mauer, co-owner of Cannon Beach Chocolate Cafe     Credit: Cannon Beach Chocolate Cafe

While COVID-lockdown fatigue is sending more tourists to the Coast, the pandemic has exacerbated one of the region’s most persistent problems: a shortage of seasonal labor — a problem that has now turned into a crisis. 

An expensive housing market, lack of affordable child care and enhanced COVID-19 unemployment benefits mean businesses must compete for employees. As coastal businesses reopen in preparation for a busy summer, finding ways to attract workers has become just as vital as customers. 

“It’s definitely been slim pickings staff-wise,” says Mauer. “We tried putting up help-wanted signs, and we didn’t get any hits. No one was applying.” 

Mauer and Shipp turned to their connections in the community to find employees, relying on word-of-mouth recommendations and asking regulars if they knew anyone looking for a job. 

The Cannon Beach Chocolate Cafe and its delivery truck   Credit: Cannon Beach Chocolate Cafe

The Cannon Beach Chocolate Cafe has been able to find enough staff to stay open, but not all businesses are so lucky. 

“There are hotel rooms offline and blocked off because the workforce supply is not sufficient to transition rooms from one guest to the next. For restaurants, operating hours have condensed,” says Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association. 

“We have operators on the Coast who have been hospitality owners for decades and are stating they have never experienced a workforce shortage of this magnitude,” says Brandt. 

Labor shortages on the Coast are nothing new. Seasonal jobs often pay minimum wage, and the lack of affordable housing has made it increasingly difficult for workers to find places to live. 

COVID-19 made housing problems worse. A 2020 study conducted by the Brookings Institution found that foreclosure rates and rent delinquency for low-wage workers, especially workers of color, doubled as a result of the pandemic. 

Brandt says his organization is “baffled” by the lack of available housing on the Coast. He says he does not understand why more multifamily units have not been built to accommodate low-income workers. 

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Another problem that has worsened during the pandemic is a lack of access to child care. A 2019 report by the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences found every coastal county in the state to be a “child care desert,” meaning there are three children for every one open child care spot. 

The pandemic forced daycares around the state to close, some permanently, leaving parents to choose between working and taking care of their child. 

“The closing of countless child care facilities left working parents with no option but to help their kids with distance learning,” says Graham Trainor, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.

“Add to the list a relatively low-wage tourism-dependent economy and you have a brutal combination that makes it hard for working families to get by on the Coast.” 

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Due to the high cost of child care, traditionally low wages and expanded unemployment benefits put in place by the federal American Rescue Plan legislation, it often makes more sense for prospective employees to remain jobless. 

“I view us as being in competition with the federal government. That’s not speculation; that’s a fact. I’ve had prospective, and even existing employees, bring it up during interviews,” says Terrance Bichsel, owner of Best Western Plus Ocean View Resort and Rivertide Suites Hotel in Seaside. 

Demand for employees has forced employers to offer starting wages that are higher than usual. According to the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, coastal businesses have to offer starting wages ranging from $18-$20 an hour plus bonus incentives — a price not every coastal business owner can afford. 

 123_1_3.jpgHospitality team of the Best Western Plus Ocean View Resort in Seaside   Credit: Terrance Bichsel

“More business will go under if things don’t happen,” says Bichsel. “We’ve had restaurants close. We see long lines of people standing in the rain. It’s not good for the attractiveness of Seaside.”

For Bichsel, and many other employers on the coast, retaining his 100 employees means providing health insurance for full-time staff, offering guaranteed work hours, employee referral bonuses and flexible schedules for employees with children. Bichsel also found a way to address the housing crisis by financially supporting an employee who faced eviction.

“You have to treat your employees like family,” he says.   

Fixes for housing and child care could be on the horizon. In 2019 the Oregon Legislature passed HB 2001, which eliminated zoning restrictions that prevented duplexes and triplexes from being built in single-family housing zones. 

The child care crisis is being felt around the country, leading legislators to take action. On March 16, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici reintroduced the Child Care Is Infrastructure Act, which would establish loan and grant programs for child care facilities and early-childhood educators. 

In May Ron Wyden introduced the Building Child Care for a Better Future Act, which would invest $700 billion to expand child care availability nationwide.

But none of these solutions will stem the labor shortage before the boom of summer tourism. Until then, businesses on the Coast will have to make do. 

For Trainor, the labor shortage is an indicator of a deeper issue: that wages for coastal workers were not as high as they should have been in the first place. 

“What we are seeing is the effect of stagnant wages, especially in the service and hospitality industries,” says Trainor.

“If an extra $300 a week is enough for some workers to not go back to their old job, what does that say about that job or that industry?” 

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