If you were in Grand Marais, Minn., mid-week this summer you may have had a tough time getting a bite to eat, despite plenty of diners ready to find some good take-out or outdoor dining.
Jim Boyd, executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, says this strange conundrum was the most visible result of not enough workers and an abundance of visitors.
“Most restaurants shut down in the middle of the week in an effort to give workers a break, there were just too few people, serving too many meals to too many people,” he said.
Eateries closed on what used to be typically slow mid-week days, but that strategy turned out to be ineffective this year - with record breaking visitor numbers every day of the week.
After a pretty scary beginning of the warm tourist season, and the shut-down of most business in Cook County due to COVID-19 during March and April, predictions were dire for the warm-up.
“When we re-opened we didn’t know what to expect, and the surge in visitors was just incredible,” Boyd said.
A recent post-summer survey of businesses by the Chamber reflects some astonishing results. Asked how this year’s revenue compared with last year’s, more than a third of respondents said that revenue exceeded last year, and an additional 9 percent reported revenue that matched the previous year’s.
“No one expected that, it’s an odd phenomenon that people from the Twin Cities want to get away from the density, and with our excellent broadband they discovered this was a great place to work remotely from, and feel safe while enjoying the great outdoors,” Boyd stated.
However, a shortage of workers created stress for many. With high school classes graduating fewer than 40 students a year, and a general population skewed to those over 65, the pool of potential resident workers is small. Couple that with the presidential order to temporarily suspend new work visas for international workers to limit the number of immigrants this June, and Cook County was in dire straits.
“Trump’s anti-immigrant stance concerns us a great deal. We are so dependent on foreign workers,” Boyd said.
According to Boyd, an average summer tourist season in the region brings in more than 300 international workers.
International workers usually join the Cook County workforce through two temporary visa programs: the J1 visa program that recruits college students enrolled in school in their home countries, and H2B visa workers that larger resorts tend to hire.
A more recent ruling by a federal court judge has instituted a block on Trump’s ban, but what that will mean for resorts hiring for ski season has yet to be understood. Ski resorts in the area typically hire international workers during the snow season.
“We are really dependent on international workers. We simply do not generate the amount of labor necessary to support the kind of tourism economy we have here,” Boyd said.
Unemployment rates in Cook County remained elevated, despite open seasonal positions, in part, Boyd says, because of amplified unemployment benefits that allowed some to stay home while the state worked out a COVID-19 strategy.
However, others were checked out of the workforce to care for children with no school or daycare options, and some vulnerable seniors, who usually take part-time seasonal jobs, stayed home to protect their health.
“Scarcity of labor is not new. We are always facing that, especially with a lack of excess housing and this year exacerbated that,” said Boyd.
Linda Jurek, director of Visit Cook County, says at the beginning of the season, uncertainty pushed VCC to cut its budget severely. Everyone was surprised when the tourist count began to climb steeply mid-July.
Jurek said that the flood of tourists to the Arrowhead might be accounted for by those not willing to take a plane to their vacation destinations, but still willing to drive in a 400-mile radius to have an outdoors-based vacation.
Sticking strictly to VCC’s mission of enhancing tourism economy was a hard ask this year, Jurek added.
“I got drawn off in many directions, and the workforce issue is huge with the summer being the hardest hit, but even during winter ski season it’s going to be a problem,” she said.
Pressure to build out the shoulder seasons through destination marketing is something that Jurek says is somewhat unrealistic, especially after such a remarkably intense season.
“Every year some restaurant businesses are tired and just need a break, so they shut down for a month. The best message from us is that things are going to be quiet and you may want to pack your crockpot and cooler,” Jurek stated.
Struggling to find a place to eat out has been the biggest complaint of visitors, but Jurek says that by late summer businesses had embraced a clear message asking customers to be patient with the unusual situation.
Some businesses in Cook County took a different tact, pivoting to recruit 35 workers (with the help of the Chamber from Puerto Rico) where immigrant and visa issues are not a problem for those U.S. citizens.
Thom McAleer, owner of Cascade Lodge and restaurant in Lutsen, hired four full-time workers from Puerto Rico and found it to be a very good solution to his worker shortage.
The language barrier was addressed through Cook County Higher Education, which provided laptops to McAleer’s Spanish-speaking employees at a low cost, and helped them enroll in online English Language classes.
“Myself and several other businesses in the county were asked if we were interested in having the program continue, and the answer is a resounding yes,” McAleer stated.
A major advantage of bringing in workers from Puerto Rico, who do not need a J1 visa and the attending criteria of being active college students, is that Cascade Lodge can keep its needed staff all the way through the peak season, which only really slows down at the end of October. In a typical year, McAleer says his J1 workers must depart before school terms start in September, leaving him short-handed for a month.
While not required to hire college students, McAleer says one of his workers is a college student, but with options to attend school online they were able to continue school through the proper conclusion of the work season.
McAleer says that his four workers from Puerto Rico all expressed interest in returning when they are needed next year.