Anchorage business owners fear worker burnout as hiring struggles persist

Angela Libal, owner and manager of Title Wave Books in Anchorage, walks by the “Sell or Trade” counter on Aug. 30, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Elissa Brown has co-owned Wild Scoops ice cream since 2015.

“Here’s a little window where you can look into the test kitchen and see us making ice cream,” she said, peering through the glass at the Midtown scoop shop at kitchen staff prepping ingredients on a recent morning before they opened for business. “So yummy.”

Last summer, during the initial waves of the pandemic when business was so slow, Wild Scoops didn’t do much hiring, Brown said.

This summer was different — at first, hiring looked promising. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Brown isn’t the only one feeling the strain. While this summer brought a gradual economic recovery after a tough 2020, business owners in Anchorage say hiring remains a stubborn challenge. Many say it seems like there aren’t any applicants out there, and they’re worried about burning out the staff they do have.

At Wild Scoops, Brown said, they were turning down prospective employees at the beginning of the summer, thinking they were set for the season.

A few weeks later, she said, “the weather got warmer and the lines got longer. We started all of a sudden trying to recruit people. But then it seemed like every restaurant or retail space in town was also trying to find people.”

It felt like every week they were constantly interviewing and trying to hire new staff, she said. Without enough workers, employees were starting to feel burned out.

“It’s a tricky cycle because there’ll be a day where someone’s like, ‘I just need a mental health day, it’s too much.’ So it’s like, ‘Okay, like take time off, do what you need.’ But then everyone else who’s stuck [working] is stuck short-staffed, and then they feel like they need mental health days,” she said.

To give the team more breathing room, Wild Scoops announced last month that it would start closing on Mondays, going from a seven days a week schedule to six.

For now, Brown said, they have enough staff to make it into the fall, though she expects they will be hiring again soon.

Alaska businesses have struggled for months to hire new employees — and it’s unclear when it will ease.

Consumer demand has bounced back faster than employers can find and onboard new employees, said Lennon Weller, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor.

In June, the Dunleavy administration ended $300 federal unemployment benefits to “help people get back to work.” Weller said unemployment claims were already declining, and the trend doesn’t seem to have been affected by the ending of the extra benefits.

The state reported about 20,000 unemployment claims in July.

“We still have a significant number of jobs unfilled, a significant number of individuals unemployed, but whether or not those actually overlap and match the skill sets … it’s more complicated,” Weller said.

Economists say burnout is one possible cause of Alaska’s labor shortage, but there are a lot of other factors that are contributing as well, like a lack of affordable child care and the absence of J-1 visa seasonal workers this summer. Department of Labor economist Neal Fried said there is a range of hard-to-measure personal factors that could be contributing as well.

“Maybe they’re going back to school instead. Maybe they’re changing careers, and it’s taking them longer to make those decisions,” he said. “Maybe more folks — and we will only know this as time goes by — are choosing not to enter the labor force.”

For example, Fried said, some two-wage earner families may have decided that it makes more sense for one person to stay home with kids instead of paying for child care.

Lauren Blanchett owns clothing stores Tiny Ptarmigan and Portfolio in Midtown Anchorage. She said she hasn’t even started searching for employees because of how bad the hiring market looks.

“Everywhere I’ve gone, just as a consumer, all I see are Help Wanted signs,” she said “I’ve even seen some that say we’ll meet or beat other offers within a certain geographic area. I don’t want to add something for no return.”

Blanchett said with fluctuations in consumer demand and the state of the pandemic, she’s worried about hiring more people only to have to lay them off in a few weeks or months. That means she’s picking up the slack herself while trying to make sure her employees don’t work more than 40 hours a week.

The word “sabbatical” has been on her mind a lot lately.

“My work has doubled in the pandemic,” she said. “I am completely exhausted. I’m totally burnt out. And I just look forward to the day that, one, I can afford, and two, there are people that I can hire to just relieve some of my own personal workload.”

While some businesses, like Wild Scoops, see their highest sales in summer, others, like Blanchett’s, have their busy seasons during back-to-school and winter holiday shopping. With no clear end to the current labor shortage, Blanchett said she could find herself in a tough spot if she’s not able to hire in the next few months.

“I might end up asking my older nieces like, ‘Hey, can you come in on a Saturday and just wrap gifts, or empty fitting rooms?’” she said. “But who knows? They may have already been snatched up by then!”

At Title Wave Books in Spenard, owner Angela Libal decided to start hiring again back in April. Her staff is about a third smaller than it was pre-pandemic, which means things can get overwhelming on busy days. She said hiring this spring and summer has been frustratingly different than in years past.

“We would maybe have 40, 50, 60 applicants. And then when we’d go to set up interviews, we’d have 10 or 12 people, but maybe only two would show up,” she said. “Trying to figure out, why are people booking an interview when they are not going to show up?”

Libal guessed that because everyone’s hiring, workers can be choosy about where they go.

Dawn Walsh, co-owner of ShuzyQ shoes in South Anchorage, can relate. She’s been trying since March to bring on new hires. Her staff of 10 has dropped to three, and she said old recruitment methods like word of mouth don’t seem to be enough anymore.

“Before, the issue was finding someone who really fit in and that had experience and that would work with our team well,” she said. “But now it’s that we’re not getting any applicants. At all.”

Walsh said they raised wages and gave the store manager a bonus this year — a common market response in a labor shortage, according to labor economist Weller.

“If we need to, we will pay more,” said Walsh. “We’re just nervous about losing anybody right now.”

She said, at first, she thought she might be competing with unemployment benefits, and that’s why she wasn’t getting a response. Now, she said, she thinks the pandemic has caused people to adjust their priorities.

“I just heard from an employee that’s going to college, and she just said she’s not working weekends anymore,” Walsh said. “And that’s good. It’s good if people want to make those lifestyle choices. It’s just not very good for us in retail.”

Brown, at Wild Scoops, said it’s been a hard 18 months for everyone, not just in retail. The list is long.

“The restaurant workers, the nurses, the doctors, the teachers, the single parents, the school-aged parents, school-aged kids, high schoolers … There’s so few people in groups who actually won out this last year and a half,” she said. “Everybody’s feeling the burnout.”

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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