A Harlow’s School Bus recruiting banner in downtown Whitehall. 

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is looking for a jailer. It usually gets 10 to 20 applications for the post — but as of last week, just one person had expressed interest. 

At The River Pizza & Subs in Boulder, Greg Hughes normally has 10 to 12 workers heading into the summer. Now, he is making due with just five. Tizer Gardens in Jeffersonville is scrambling to find enough people to prepare its nursery for the busy spring season. In Montana City, the Jackson Creek Bar & Grille has closed on Mondays for lack of kitchen help, according to its Facebook page.

Montana has endured a tight labor market for years — but across Jefferson County, employers say hiring this spring has been especially challenging. “It’s a struggle,” said Kellie Doherty, human resources director for the county government. “I’ve never seen it this hard before.”

The county has been looking for a solid waste truck driver since early March. The first time Doherty advertised for the position, she says, no one applied. The second time, she got two applicants, and one called back to withdraw. Doherty is advertising again – and is trying to fill the gap with temporary help. “Our one driver is working all the shifts,” she said. “He wants to take vacation and can’t right now.”

The phenomenon appears to be affecting all sorts of businesses. “It’s been really strange,” said Cory Kirsch, owner of Hardware Hank in Boulder. He’s looking for part-time sales help. That’s harder to fill than a full-time role — but “normally we get a few retired or high school kids, at least asking. But the last ad, I didn’t get one response. I put it out on Facebook, and no response.”

For some positions, fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic may still be dissuading people from working. At Harlow’s School Bus Service in Boulder, transportation manager Joe Canzona says that seniors or stay-at-home mothers who previously were attracted by routes paying $25.50 for an hour’s driving may be put off by the prospect of close contact with children. Canzona would like to have 19 drivers; he has 14 now. (He also needs a diesel technician.)

Tom Harrington, economic and community development agent at the Madison Jefferson County Extension office, says other, more structural factors are at play. For one thing, local employers increasingly are competing with higher wages available in Bozeman and Helena, where businesses are likewise struggling to hire. He notes that a McDonald’s franchise in Butte is offering $12 per hour plus health and 401k retirement benefits — “and it’s having a hard time. A lot of businesses are vying for the same individuals.”

In addition, Harrington says, people from out of state who telecommute are buying up more homes in the county, essentially squeezing out people who otherwise might work locally. “As you think of new potential workers moving into the area, there’s no place to live.” That’s a structural change that could affect hiring for years to come.

But most employers blame a shorter-term cause. Workers have dried up, they say, because the federal government has increased the financial assistance available to the unemployed in the wake of the pandemic. In March, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, which extended through September 4 the $300 added weekly to most unemployment checks. That higher benefit was first made available under President Trump’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act last March.

“The additional benefits allow people to stay at home,” said Kyle Eckmann. Eckmann’s companies, based in Clancy, operate 34 Great Clips salons in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. He says he’s 30 employees short. 

“Usually, unemployment pays 60% or 70% of people’s wage, so there’s an incentive to get back to work,” Eckmann said. “That additional $300/week, there was a legitimate need for it when a lot of kids were at home. But the reality now is, it’s being abused. Until that stops, it’s going to be challenging for all of us in retail setting.” 

Employment data doesn’t reflect the labor shortage. The labor force in Jefferson County – reflecting the number of people either working or actively looking for work – totaled 5,796 in March of this year, about the same as in March, 2019, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics via StatsAmerica. 

The BLS reported 240 unemployed in the county in March, only slightly lower than the 248 two years earlier. The unemployment rate in March was 4.1%, about where it has been for the last two years except for last April and May, when job cuts in the wake of the coronavirus crisis lifted the rate to as high as 9.5% (chart, above).

But the workforce data doesn’t capture people who may be receiving unemployment benefits but not trying (much) to find work. Benefits recipients must document their job search efforts, and when people apply for jobs, “it’s hard to tell whether people are keeping their unemployment going by showing they’re looking for work,” said Joy Thomas-Ratigan, corporate recruiter for Harlow’s, who is working to fill jobs in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. 

Thomas-Ratigan may have a solution. Because it takes new drivers two to three months to train for commercial driver’s licenses, she’s recruiting now for classes that start in June or July. Trainees, she says, can keep receiving unemployment benefits while taking classes. And by the time school starts, the added benefits of the American Rescue Plan Act may finally expire. “That’s how I’ve been approaching it,” she said.

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