By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
By 7 a.m. Monday, the line of vehicles at Starbucks on Highway 59 in Gillette was already at least a dozen deep. The busy franchise that struggles on an average day to keep customers moving quickly through its drive-through window has been further taxed in recent weeks due to a shortage of workers.
The lack of available employees has crippled the business to the point where it had to recently cut its hours nearly in half to keep with up with demand.
“It’s definitely been a problem finding people to work,” barista Cord Smith said Monday morning, noting that the business could use at least 10 more employees
Part of the problem, Smith said, is both competition among other fast food and retail outlets as business continues to pick up across the state and extended unemployment benefits made available because of coronavirus.
Of particular note is a program approved by Congress as part of its coronavirus relief bill that increased unemployment benefits by $300.
The extra money, combined with regular unemployment benefits, often totals more than some workers make in a week and serves as a disincentive for drawing unemployed residents back to work, Smith and others in the hospitality industry said.
Relief, however, may soon be coming following Gov. Mark Gordon’s announcement last week that he would be clamping down on these benefits.
As of June 19, Gordon will eliminate the extra $300 weekly payment and reduce the length of time benefits are available to 26 weeks — less than half of the 52-week period approved by Congress.
In addition, Gordon will also limit eligibility for unemployment benefits to unemployed workers who have paid into the state’s unemployment fund, making self-employed and “gig” workers once again ineligible.
Gordon is one of 18 Republican governors who see these generous benefits as hampering the state’s ability to rebound economically in the wake of business slowdowns resulting from the COVID pandemic.
“Wyoming needs workers, our businesses are raring to go,” he said in a statement. “I recognize the challenges facing Wyoming employers, and I believe it’s critical for us to do what we can to encourage more hiring. Federal unemployment programs have provided short-term relief for displaced and vulnerable workers at a tough time but are now hindering the pace of our recovery. People want to work, and work is available. Incentivizing people not to work is just plain un-American.”
He’s hoping the move will help hasten economic recovery and bring down the state’s unemployment rate.
Currently, Wyoming has the 28th lowest unemployment rate in the nation at 5.3%, according to an April 16 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Vermont currently have the lowest unemployment rate at 2.9%, according to the same data, while Hawaii scores highest at 9%.
The two Wyoming industries reporting the most unemployed workers who have filed to continue unemployment benefits are the construction and the leisure and hospitality industries with 1,001 and 797 requests for continued claims as of the week ending May 1, according to data from Wyoming Workforce Services.
Of all the unemployed workers filing for benefits, the largest majority of requests for continued claims are from workers age 25 and below, who make up 41% of those seeking claims, followed by residents age 35 to 44 at 38.7%.
Of the state’s 23 counties, Natrona reported the highest number of unemployment claims from all industries for the week ending May 8 at 489, followed by 329 in Laramie County. Campbell County had the third-highest unemployment claims for the same period at 238, with the fewest claims, 13, filed in Niobrara County.
Many small business owners like Lilly Nilson, co-owner of Stampede Saloon in Chugwater, have been struggling to absorb the worker shortage as business continues to gain steam with the revitalization of the economy.
Friday night, Nilson found herself stuck behind the bar while her husband Lance manned the grill and deep fat fryer and his parents Merwyn and Margie seated guests and helped with dishes. The two waitresses, who had already put in eight-hour shifts on their day jobs, strategized for how the two of them would service the bustling dining room and bar.
In a town of just under 200 residents, the labor pool in Chugwater is already strained without perks to disincentivize workers, Nilson said.
“Let’s just say that anyone who wants to work is already working,” she said.
She is also all for Gordon’s attempt to clamp down on unemployment benefits.
Likewise, an employee at Western Travel Terminal in Torrington was celebrating the news.
He declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the company, but he did say that the 24-hour truck stop was definitely struggling to keep up. He estimated that the business needs at least six employees and added no one is coming in to fill out an application. As a result, he and others have been putting in long days to keep up.
“June 19 can’t come soon enough,” he said as he loaded hotdogs onto the rotisserie early Saturday morning. “I’m ready for a couple days off.”