BRAINERD, Minn. – Sous chef Rayan Reid flashed a weary grin as he carefully garnished yet another perfectly sizzled steak with béarnaise sauce and sprinkled it with micro greens at Madden’s on Gull Lake.
It was almost 9 p.m. and he was on hour number 85 of his workweek at the northern Minnesota resort. Or was it 90? He’d lost track. He could only brace himself for a long summer.
“Since we’re short staffed, I have to come in early and make sure everything is ready for the night,” he said. “I drink a lot of Red Bull.”
A dire seasonal worker shortage is socking tourism-based businesses across the region and the country as the Memorial Day holiday weekend kicks off what most predict will be a booming summer.
Large resorts like Madden’s all the way down to small mom-and-pop shops are posting help-wanted signs and getting creative in trying to lure workers by offering them flexible hours and more competitive wages. In the Brainerd Lakes area alone, Madden’s resort is still in need of about 50 workers, Breezy Point Resort could use at least another 75 and Grand View Lodge wants about 50 more, too.
“This is about as tough as it’s ever been,” said Grand View’s General Manager Mark Ronnei, who has worked at the lodge for 39 years. “We’re all hands on deck right now.”
The shortage reflects a major shift in demographics, particularly in parts of the region that are popular tourist destinations, where baby boomer workers are retiring faster than they can be replaced.
In Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, the working-age population is expected to decline 4 percent between 2015 and 2025, according to the state demographer’s office. In the north-central portion of the state, a 2.8 percent decline is projected. Both areas are expected to have the second and third most rapidly declining working-age populations, mostly because of a lack of in-migration.
Adding to the problem: Many tourism-based businesses have been growing, expanding their services and seasons and requiring extra help for a longer stretch of time. With a rebounding economy, fewer people are seeking seasonal employment, too. In Minnesota, communities in some heavy tourism areas once made up largely of families are becoming hot spots for retirees or part-timers who buy second homes there.
But this year, owners are facing an extra hurdle: a congressional exemption that allowed more international seasonal workers to have jobs in the U.S. on temporary H-2B visas expired last year. While more visas have since been authorized, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services hasn’t yet resumed the processing involved to bring in the workers, said Minneapolis immigration attorney Loan Huynh.
Leaders of seasonal businesses around the country — many of whom have been increasingly relying upon such workers — have sent letters to Congress and even flown to Washington to lobby for faster action.
Business leaders say they would rather hire locally; bringing international workers in is expensive for employers, who must pay for visa processing and transportation.
“International workers are the only option many Cook County employers have. Our unemployment rate in summer dips below 3 percent, significantly beyond healthy full employment,” county economic leaders wrote to officials in Washington recently. “We’ve never seen the labor shortage as acute as it is for this coming summer.”
In the meantime, some employers have arranged to bring in more college students from around the globe on temporary J-1 visas. While the student workers are valuable, they are typically less experienced and can’t stay in the country as long as those on H-2B visas, leaving business owners in the lurch in the spring and fall.
Managers are hoping that more H-2B workers will be allowed in soon, but they worry it might not be in time for the summer rush.
The number of people traveling in Minnesota — the majority for leisure — increased 10.8 percent from 2013 to 2015, reaching 71.2 million people, according to Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism promotion office. After a strong season last year, expectations for this season are high, with nearly half of lodging businesses surveyed this spring expecting summer revenue to be up and 41 percent predicting increased occupancy, the office reported.
The labor shortage is an important problem to solve for areas heavily dependent on tourist dollars.
In Cook County, for instance, 80 percent of the economy is directly related to tourism, said Jim Boyd, executive director of the county’s Chamber of Commerce.
“We frequently say that tourism is our economy and that without it, much of the other 20 percent would wither and die,” Boyd said.
In Grand Marais, Cook County’s Small Business Development Center consultant Pat Campanaro is embarking on a plan to connect local businesses with potential workers who might not be inclined to apply for full-time gigs, such as retirees or stay-at-home parents.
“We’re trying to think outside the box here,” Campanaro said.
Company hiring managers are also getting creative by advertising jobs on social media and billboards, and dangling monetary incentives for referrals in their quest to reach and interest a new generation of workers.
In Hayward, Wis., Treeland Resorts’ owners turned a long-term rental property into housing for workers that they recruited from Wisconsin colleges. Those who stay a full season get a bonus at the end of the year; those who have been around three seasons get money in a pension.
“You just start twisting arms of everyone you know,” co-owner Cheryl Treland said. “I’ve got a sister of mine who is a retired corporate attorney. … She cleans with us on Saturdays.”
At Grand View in Nisswa, which does not use H-2B workers but employs about 75 international students, a manager is involved in a program to offer culinary curriculum in area high schools, an effort to expose students to that career.
“There has been a general de-emphasizing of vocational training,” Ronnei said, and the industry is now starting to promote it. “It’s not that hard for a person to make $35,000 to $50,000 a year in a kitchen.”
The guest experience
Hospitality managers are emphasizing that they will continue to deliver excellent service to their guests this season despite being short-staffed.
At Breezy Point, Assistant General Manager David Spizzo said he’s had his managers work housekeeping and has brought in family to help vacuum, dust and scrub.
“This is what you do, because when you don’t have enough staff, somebody’s got to get it done,” he said.
Spizzo had hoped to use 25 H-2B visa workers for the first time this year; he ended up with just four so far. He still employs some international students.
Last week, two students on internships from Jamaica worked the front desk.
“It’s a great day here at Breezy Point,” Jaydie Ann Cooper said, answering the phone. At 28, she said she is in the country to work and is looking forward to long hours and overtime pay. “We like it when it’s busy,” she said.
On the North Shore of Lake Superior, managers at Naniboujou Lodge and Restaurant prepared for the possibility of serving only sandwiches, not entrees, for some evening meals in their signature dining room, a place that prides itself on cooking from scratch. They were counting on bringing back four international cooks on H-2B visas, but when that fell through they had to consider cutting back on hours and offerings.
“I was very scared I was going to have to lay off some of my American workers that I’ve hired for the restaurants,” operations manager Bonnie Muus said.
Then, just last week, relief came when a man with culinary experience moved to the area and responded to their ad, Muus said. They are back to serving full-course meals.
Full-time workers like Reid, a Jamaican immigrant who started as an H-2B worker at Madden’s in 2006 before marrying a local woman, will pick up the slack. After dropping off his children at day care, he heads to the Restaurant at Madden Inn & Golf Club in the mornings to prepare sauces and other items so that the kitchen moves like a ballet during the evening dinner rush.
Reid misses the kitchen staff of 58 H-2B workers who used to return to Madden’s each season. Now, the resort has 25 such workers, but all are newcomers.
“We just need to get two more cooks at night and a couple for the morning and we’ll be OK,” he said as a steak sizzled atop a char broiler. He paused, then clarified: “And if we could get five more dishwashers, we are OK.”
A tiny printer spit out more dinner orders: Top sirloins. Braised short ribs. Walleye. The clock ticked toward 9 p.m. closing time.
“We’ll just have to do what we have to do,” Reid said. “It’s just part of the job.”