Big Timber businesses feel labor pinch

Friday, August 24, 2018

Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

Debbie Beley waits on customers at Gusts of Big Timber on Tuesday.

Most business proprietors in downtown Big Timber agree: They are dealing with a labor crunch and having difficulty finding help. College students filling in for the summer are heading back to school and the labor market is shrinking further as merchants head into fall and winter.

The labor shortage is actually a nationwide and Montana phenomenon partly because of the impact of low unemployment. But a few local merchants say they have found other factors in play, which has left them understaffed and short-handed.

A sign in the window of a business in Livingston simply says, “Job?”

“I wish I knew the answer,” said Sara McFarland at Gust’s clothing store on McLeod Street. “We always had more applications than we wanted. But in the last four years it has become more difficult to hire people and it is getting worse.”

Virgil Gust, Sara’s father, noted one case when a person told them she would start work in a week, but she emailed the morning she was to report to work and backed out.

“You hire people and then they’re gone,” he added.

McFarland said they did line up an interview Tuesday, adding “hope springs eternal.”

A few merchants said some people simply “don’t want to work” and quit soon after they are hired.

Tiffany Satre, owner of the Thirsty Turtle, had to close the restaurant on Mondays starting in July because she is so short-handed and can’t fill positions. She also was forced to shorten the Turtle’s hours.

“Our applications are few and far between,” Satre said. “We put ads in from Billings to Bozeman, mostly on Facebook. Sysco (a food distribution company that supplies restaurants and schools) even helped us by emailing to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. We had a few applicants we hired as soon as they put in the application.”

But just since June she had five “walkouts” from the kitchen, who stayed from a few weeks to a month. A month later, she closed Monday hours and shortened hours the rest of the week.

“This is the worst year for employment we’ve ever had,” Satre said. “We are fine on the front line but missing four in the kitchen. We have two hired cooks and we should have six cooks. My son, husband and I have made it work for now.”

Satre added that some of the applicants “demand” certain pay or days off right off the bat.

At the Timber Bar, owner Frank Chounet stressed that the labor pinch isn’t exclusively with bars or restaurants.

“It’s not particularly restaurants — it’s Montana and our low unemployment,” Chounet said. “It’s happening at coffee shops, auto repair places and department stores, too. People don’t stay long and then move on. In my four years here, I have only had a full staff for four months.”

Cole Pharmacy also has seen recent problems finding, hiring and keeping people, according to Stormy Stevens.

She said some applicants “just don’t want to work, but they want the job and the pay.”

That is, if they get enough applicants at all. Stevens said they used to receive about 20 applications a month, but it is now down to “a couple.”

“We have kept people but if you have to replace one, it takes a long time to find anybody,” she said.

Stevens estimates it can take six months to find help at the front of the store.

“We also need to find people who fit with the community,” Stevens added, reducing the chances they can find that fit.

One exception to those interviewed — at least on McLeod Street — is the Big Timber Bakery. Manager Elisha Sherman said the bakery has never needed to put a help wanted sign on the door, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hiring.

“We get several applicants, either with experience or willing to learn,” Sherman said. “We’re willing to hire some who have finished high school or are in college, and train them. We are very fortunate we have not had to hire very many people. We have a good crew now. In the summer there has been a little turnover, and we would have hired a few more people if we found them. We really have not had a problem.”

The bakery is operated by the Heritage Montana Christian Fellowship. Many of the employees are members of the fellowship.

Working on solutions

A group of Big Timber citizens are working with the Beartooth Resource Conservation & Development organization in Joliet, which serves Sweet Grass, Stillwater, Big Horn, Carbon and Yellowstone counties.

Susan St. Germain is one of the local participants in a project to survey Big Timber employers as a way to find long-term solutions to employment problems.

The survey, when completed in late September, is an attempt to identify specific community needs in such areas as highly skilled and entry-level workers, pay range and the effect of wages on workforce housing needs.

Sue Taylor, Beartooth RC&D economic development director, said the goal is to find answers to training workers, better training of high school graduates, access to two-year colleges, apprenticeship programs and workforce housing needs in Sweet Grass County.

“Our priority is to find out employers’ needs,” she said.

In the meantime, help wanted signs are a common sight in storefronts along McLeod Street.