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Employee Shortage Getting Dire on Oregon Coast

Published 05/06/21 at 7:35 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Employee Shortage Getting Dire on Oregon Coast

(Oregon Coast) – With all the changing COVID restrictions, closures, reopenings and resultant uncertainty in the travel industry, one thing that Oregon coast's hotel and food sectors can count on is a lack of employees.

Oregon's tourism-based beach towns have long been in various degrees of hurt when it comes to staffing because of a lack of affordable housing on the coast. This year's pandemic roller coaster ride has simply made it worse. All of the state's tourism industry is aching in some way when it comes to staffing, but on the Oregon coast it's dire.

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It's an issue with no easy fix, and it's much more complex than simply housing or those kicking back on pandemic money, according to coastal tourism managers.

A whole new set of problems for visitors has arisen because of this – and sometimes visitors are a big part of the issues as well. Tourism experts out here are starting to warn visitors you might have to be prepared for a new normal.

Lack of staffing last summer led to many hotels simply shuttering some of their rooms because housekeeping could not maintain the full load. Then adding to that, summer saw what was likely the single largest influx of visitors in coastal history.

Travel Lane County's Andy Vobora said that issue still exists. The organization includes not just Eugene but areas like Florence and most of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

“Lane County restaurants are closing or reducing hours, not due to a lack of customers, but due to a lack of staffing,” he said. “Area hotels are blocking rooms from being sold to customers because they lack the staffing needed to clean these rooms for incoming guests.”

In Pacific City, Nicole Twigg runs Kiwanda Coastal Properties. Luckily, she hasn't had to cut rental home availability yet, but her search for summer staff right now is verging on frantic.

“The competition for good staff is fierce with 'help-wanted' signs in almost every business in town,” she said. “Even the garbage companies, state park employees, campgrounds, police, etc. are under-staffed. The demand is making it difficult to patrol things like public bathrooms and empty garbage cans at parks. It is a challenge for all aspects of tourism resources.”

The issue has prompted Neskowin's Hawk Creek Cafe' to offer an outrageous hiring bonus: $5,000 if you stay the season from May through October. Then, if you refer any new employees you get $1,000 per referral. A spokesman there said they're looking for line cooks, pizza cooks, etc.

Portland's David McElveen runs Oregon Beach Vacations, which has some 200 homes from Florence up through Warrenton – about 180 miles of coast. This requires employees to service areas in Yachats, Newport, Depoe Bay, Lincoln City, Neskowin, Pacific City, Oceanside, Rockaway Beach, Manzanita, Cannon Beach and Seaside.

“This has been a very challenging year to find associates,” he said. “In many instances we go through the process to hire and even get acceptance from candidates but when they are due to arrive for training do not attend or do not have the proper documentation to move forward with the hiring process. Lincoln City, Newport and Rockaway have been areas of opportunity for additional associates.”

It's the same issue on the south coast, according to Bandon's Margaret Pounder and Coos Bay's Janice Langlinais.

“As we move down in risk level – from high to moderate in Coos County on May 7th – we will see these businesses being able to open with greater capacity, but without the staff available to manage that increased capacity,” Langlinais said. “Other industries in our area are also having difficulty in filling open positions, including construction and home healthcare.”

Why this is happening is a lot more multi-layered than just lack of housing and unemployment benefits paying more than regular wages, although those are arguably the two biggest issues.

The housing problem has been around for decades. Even 20 years ago, Yachats locals complained to Oregon Coast Beach Connection there were virtually no apartments there, and the town has some of the most expensive real estate in the state. After 2010, it wasn't unusual to find some summer employees in places like Cannon Beach living out of their cars and sleeping at pullouts.

Now, potential coastal employees from the valley are in between a serious rock and a hard place. Most want ads specify not to apply unless you already live on the coast.

“Property values have sky-rocketed making it hard for locals, many are still collecting unemployment, and many have COVID fears of working with visitors,” Twigg said.

In Bandon, Pounder said there are hopes for a new apartment unit that would house 50 or more, but it's a ways off. Langlinais said Coos Bay has new construction going but it will be months before completion.

“The cost of building a one- or two-bedroom property has the same permitting pricing as a larger home,” McElveen said. “It is more cost efficient for a developer to build a larger home than several smaller homes with cost of materials, supplies, and permitting.”

McElveen suggested one way to help with the housing crunch is that municipalities should look into finding grants to offset construction costs for such buildings. Current construction supply costs aren't helping, either.

In Tillamook County, Twigg said officials there have been working on policies that incentivize that kind of construction.

“But the policy is not fast enough for the need,” she said.

Nan Devlin, director of Visit Tillamook Coast, said other issues are affecting potential employees in that area. Among them are lack of transportation

Childcare is another big problem as well, said both Devlin and Pounder.

Then there are the sputtering openings and reopenings with COVID restrictions laxing and returning. Many employees don't bother coming back for fear of getting laid off again two weeks later.

McElveen added some employees simply jump ship quickly if there's something they don't like about the job.

Wages on the Coast

How much do coastal wages play in all this? There's a surprise here.

Devlin told Oregon Coast Beach Connection there's a myth – at least in her area – that wages are all too low to make a decent living. A survey conducted by the county revealed hotel / vacation rental workers make an average of $22 per hour. Restaurant workers may make just minimum wage, but tips can really add up, she said.

However, wages on the south coast are apparently not as high, according to Pounder. She said in the Bandon area wages are approximately $15 an hour on average.

A New Normal

While it's dire for business owners it's going to start making a mark with visitors. Higher prices are likely in the works for many businesses, who have to pass on their labor cost to customers.

Pounder said more patience is going to be necessary – not like last summer's horror show of abuse and customers walking out without paying in many places.

“Mean/rude customers are an issue as well,” Pounder said. “They are on vacation and have a mindset of how things ‘have been done in the past' and we aren't in that world any longer. Our entire frame of mind must change.”

This, too, has scared off many employees.



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