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Labor Day report reflects working class woes during pandemic

by Rebekah King
| October 6, 2021 12:00 AM

How are you doing? This is a completely ordinary question that we ask each other numerous times each day. And the typical response is busy or fine. Unfortunately, those nonchalant answers do not begin to address the question in any candid way. We are all busy - with life, and work, and family. Generally speaking, most of us are fine as well, by traditional measures.

What would happen if we paused and gave an open and honest answer to the question: How are things? For many of us, the answer would likely be: It's complicated. And that is not changing anytime soon, especially when it comes to business.

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry recently released its annual Labor Day report last week, providing insight into the state of Montana’s economic rebound from the pandemic. Not surprisingly, the hospitality industry was the hardest hit. While it has seen improvement over the past year-and-a-half, workers are still hard to come by while demand by residents and tourists continues to skyrocket. Even with higher wages and sign-on bonuses, many employers had difficulty filling job openings. Montana is experiencing a labor shortage and the reasons are many.

Montana has seen a tremendous increase in housing pricing, ranking 15th in the United States. These high prices make affordability difficult for both home buyers and renters. Additionally, many property owners are taking advantage of the financial benefits of short-term rentals, limiting rental availability and inflating costs. This disparity between home prices and average wages will continue to be one of the biggest obstacles for workers and employers.

Another issue is a decrease in the actual number of people available to work. Traditionally, Montana’s labor force participation rates have been higher than the national average. That rate is declining as more of the population moves into retirement without enough young workers to replace them.

Many of those younger workers are facing challenges balancing work with other life responsibilities. Pre-pandemic, Montana faced a childcare shortage with only 44% of what was needed. Post-pandemic, one-quarter of childcare facilities did not reopen, exasperating the problem. Parents are forced to stay home, or reduce hours, to care for their children. There is also the impact of COVID-19 itself. Being sick, caring for others who are sick, and general concerns about contracting the virus continue to keep people out of the labor force.

Where does that leave us for answers? What does the new normal look like? It is likely going to be, higher wages, streamlined processes, and extreme flexibility by employers to accommodate employee’s wants and needs. So, back to how are you doing? If you are good - great! I am glad to hear it. If you are busy, I get it. Everyone is busy. In reality, from housing to the workforce, from childcare to COVID, it's complicated. The solutions are going to be complicated too.

If you would like to read the complete Labor Day report a link to it can be found on Bigfork.org/news.