Theodore Pawlenty

Theodore Pawlenty (foreground)and JoVonna Erickson work the lobby at Dairy Queen in Osceola. The business had to close the lobby for over a month this summer due to a shortage of employees. 

Businesses on both sides of the St. Croix River are reflecting the national trend of employee shortages. 

In April 2021, nationwide job openings rose to 9.3 million, the highest number since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking those numbers twenty years ago. There is broad speculation about what’s causing the shortage in workers. Many point to the extra $300 a week in federal unemployment assistance spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefits continue to be available; although as of August 3 over half of U.S. states have decided to end the assistance early. Neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin are among those states — both will continue to provide the extra money until the current expiration date of September 6.  

In Minnesota, unemployment will pay half of an individual’s weekly salary, up to $740, according to MinnPost. With the extra $300 tacked on, that makes the maximum weekly salary of someone on unemployment in Minnesota $1,040. The payments are based on an individual’s prior salary though, which means unemployment checks for most Minnesotans are much less than that. 

Another possible explanation is a broader shift in the mentality of America’s workforce. For all the tragedy the pandemic brought, it gave many American workers a glimpse of what it’s like to have more time to spend at home with family, and Gwen Roden of the Marine General Store said she thinks that is influencing many people’s decision not to return to work. 

“I really think that the pandemic did a paradigm shift in the way people think about work and home life,” she said. “After they’ve been able to be home with their family and experience the lack of stress, to think about going back into the work force — I just think people are less willing to make the sacrifice.”

The Marine General Store is among many businesses in the St. Croix River Valley that is struggling to find employees. Roden said her issues began in Spring 2021. 

“This spring we realized we only had a couple of college kids who were going to come back,” she said. “And we had a major turnover in personnel, so trying to find people to fill in the gaps has been difficult. Right now we’re looking for a baker desperately. It’s been almost impossible to find food service people for the deli and bakery.” 

Stress from the lack of employment options also trickles down employees. Roden typically has two bakers on staff, but right now a single person is doing all the work. Roden has been advertising the position for over a month with no results. 

“Right now, we’re holding steady, but we’re considering what to do ‘if,’” she said. “We hate to out source because by the time you get the product in, it’s already half stale.”  

Roden is receiving applications for her open positions, but oftentimes when she reaches out to set up an interview, the candidates don’t respond. 

“I would say 7 out of 10 (don’t respond),” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a matter of keeping their unemployment by putting in employment applications or once they put in their application they realize how far of a drive it is. In the past I would say maybe half would show up, but I haven’t seen anything to this extent (before).”

Across the river in Osceola, the Dairy Queen on Locust Street had to close its lobby for over a month for lack of workers. Manager Madee Stener said it started to become difficult to find employees just as the pandemic began to wind down. 

“It started when everything started going back to normal after COVID,” she said. “We actually never closed (the lobby) for COVID, which was strange, but then the shortage of staff happened and we had to close it for that reason.” 

Stener said they hoped the shortage would be brief, but that it’s hung on through the spring and summer. 

“We had a little bit of light shine in when we had a couple of people apply,” she said. “But other than that, we’ve had maybe one person a month apply.” 

Dairy Queen employs a high number of high school and early college students, most of whom are not eligible for the federal relief money. With the unemployment scapegoat not available, Osceola Dairy Queen owner Relan Grove said he’s not sure why his business is being impacted so heavily. 

“There’s a lot of factors there,” he said. “And we can’t pinpoint any real cause. I’m sure that there’s a lot of things that are compounded together to contribute to the lack of help in the area.” 

Whatever the root cause, the impact on his business has been profound, and he said he’s not the only fast food restaurant in the area that’s had to make major changes. 

“There’s a lot of fast food businesses that I’ve heard have had to close their lobbies,” he said. “We just had to concentrate all of our efforts on the drive through.” 

As the problem persisted, Grove increased his wages and also provided some incentives to retain his current workers, including a bonus for recruiting new help. Through those efforts, they were recently able to reopen the lobby, but the impact of those two months will continue to be felt. 

“I can’t put an exact number on it, but in that month and a half I was probably down about $20,000,” he said. “That’s a lot of money.” 

Grove still puts in a lot of hours at the restaurant himself, even more so since the shortage began, which means he had a front row seat to watch the loss of business. 

“I’ve been in the store every day, helping make the food and the treats, and I watch people come to the door, pull on the handle, read the note that the lobby was closed and just walk away,” he said. “It just killed me. It was really difficult for me to watch all that business walk away.” 

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