With economy reopening, Upper Valley employers struggle to find seasonal workers

  • Chippers employees Kobe Peach, left, and Nick Christian, right, complete paperwork after treating a lawn for ticks in New London on Thursday.

  • Nick Christian, of Woodstock, applies organic tick control to a lawn in New London. When landscaping slowed down last winter, Chippers employees went to work at Whaleback Ski Area as a way to retain full-time workers and avoid seeking seasonal staff. James M. Patterson photos / Valley News

  • Chippers employee Kobe Peach, left, dilutes a batch of organic tick control while treating lawns with Nick Christian, right, in New London on Thursday. Last winter, Christian spent time bartending and staffing the ski rental shop and Peach ran lifts at Whaleback as part of a deal between Chippers and the ski area to keep otherwise seasonal workers employed year-round. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News
Published: 4/26/2021 5:19:38 PM

Last week, Alex and Bethany Averine, owners of AA Family Construction, an Enfield builder, posted a help-wanted notice on Facebook, seeking to hire crew members — “tools and experience preferred but not necessary” — which would pay $16 to $23 per hour.

They waited for the replies.

“None,” Bethany Averine said. “Crickets.”

Chuck Gordon, owner of A-C Lawn Mowing and Plowing in White River Junction, whose clients include many of the box-store property owners along the Route 12A corridor in West Lebanon, has had to ask his wife and son — who has a full-time teaching job — to drive the trucks to sweep the plaza parking lots at night because he can’t find workers.

“It’s an honest nightmare,” Gordon said. “We can’t get anybody.”

In Barnard, Corinna Dodson, co-owner of the Barnard Inn Restaurant and Max’s Tavern, said they’re trying to staff up for an anticipated post-pandemic revival in business this summer and ticked off the positions that remain unfilled.

“Sous chef, line cooks, full-time servers, dishwashers,” she said. “We may have to cut back on what we offer because we can’t get a full kitchen.”

The difficulty in hiring seasonal workers, always a challenge in a region that historically has had low unemployment even during national recessions, is particularly acute this year, according to Upper Valley employers.

Businesses such as contractors, lawn care and gardening companies, painters, farms, retail stores, resorts, cleaning services and trucking operations are all unable to fill positions, even though many entry-level salaries are now exceeding $15 per hour, they report.

“It’s a huge struggle right now,” said Ashlyn Coull, assistant account manager at CoWorx Staffing Services, which has offices in Newport and Charlestown and recruits workers for Upper Valley manufacturers, including firearms maker Sturm, Ruger & Co. and emergency vehicle lighting systems maker Whelen Engineering Co.

“We have hundreds of jobs to hand out to people,” Coull said. “There’s no shortage of jobs available.”

May through October is the busy period for BlakTop paving and sister company Twin State Sand and Gravel in West Lebanon, but company president and co-owner Stuart Close said he’s “very definitely worried” that he will not be able to find enough workers to fill the combined 50 to 60 positions they have every summer — about twice the number in winter.

“The construction crowd in the Upper Valley, this is all we’re talking about,” Close said of the dearth of workers.

He said BlakTop and Twin State Sand are paying a “$16 an hour baseline for inexperienced” hires. But that amount, along with “typically” 15 hours a week in overtime pay, still isn’t enough to attract workers.

“Whatever you see in the national news about unemployment does not apply here,” Close said.

Officially, the unemployment rate in the Lebanon Micropolitan NH-VT Statistical Area, which encompasses 25 towns on both sides of the Connecticut River, including the core municipalities of Lebanon, Hanover and Hartford, stood at 2.7% as of March, the most recent month for which data is available.

(The unemployment rate measures only people who are unemployed and have actively sought work within the prior four weeks, a narrow definition that leaves out people unemployed for a longer period of time and not seeking work.)

The challenge in finding workers is leading some Upper Valley employers to try innovative solutions.

At lawn care and arborist Chippers, former owner and now consultant Mundy Wilson Piper said the stress and headache of trying to staff up every spring for the coming summer season led the company last fall to abandon the idea of seasonal hiring and hire only year-round full-time employees.

“We realized we had a great crew of seasonal folks who really wanted to continue with us, but we’d have to have a way to get through the winter,” Piper said.

The company did that by striking a deal with Enfield ski area Whaleback, which brought a dozen Chippers employees on board over the winter, doing everything from grooming trails to maintenance.

Technically, Piper explained, Chippers furloughed the employees so they could keep their benefits while seconded to Whaleback. Whaleback paid their salaries.

“It worked out perfectly,” Piper said. “Just when Whaleback was shutting down they came back to us in mid-March. We were able to keep all the well-trained, licensed people in their positions and were able to start the season in such good shape.”

Although business owners often cite the $300-per-week supplemental unemployment payment enacted as part of pandemic relief as a reason for the labor shortage — critics contend the extra money, combined with ongoing state unemployment insurance, are a disincentive to find work — economists disagree over the causes.

Whatever the reason, business owners say the labor shortage is leading them to forsake work opportunities and sales because they are unable to hire enough workers to do the job.

“Last year, we did 20% of what we normally do,” said Perry Armstrong, owner of Rain or Shine Tent and Events in Randolph, describing the impact of the pandemic that wiped out tent rentals for public gatherings throughout 2020. “This year maybe we can get back 50% to 60%. We’ll need 15 to 20 more people. But we’re turning away work right now because we don’t know if we’ll be able to get the people we need.”

Bethany Averine, with AA Family Construction, said their inability to find workers meant they had to turn down two contracting jobs in as many weeks — a basement renovation for $40,000 and a deck installation for $30,000 — because “we didn’t have the manpower for it.”

The frustration for Averine is that the drought in workers comes when there is ample opportunity to make money.

“Our business itself so far this year has made $144,000. Last year, our first, we did $80,000 to $90,000. There is business to be had,” she said.

For the building industry, which regularly goes through boom-and-bust cycles, the labor shortage is occurring as the Upper Valley is experiencing the greatest surge in home sales in memory. New home owners, may of them from outside Vermont and New Hampshire, frequently are looking to make changes to their new property.

Chad Barnaby, a South Royalton contractor who specializes in renovations and remodels of residences, said he needs “two to three more guys” to meet the workload that’s coming in.

“Right now our industry is completely overwhelmed,” Barnaby said. “Regardless of lumber prices people are still wanting to do stuff.” But, he added, “I’m turning down work I can’t do, which is a major faux pas in my business,” he said.

Trumbull-Nelson Construction Co., one of the biggest builders in the Upper Valley, needs to hire 10 more people on top of the 30 it currently has to staff the projects it has scheduled through the season, said Jim Moretti, controller and human resources manager.

“We’ve been advertising since February and got very few responses. I think the only people we can grab are already working for the most part,” said Moretti, who believes the root of the issue is that not enough young people are entering the trades to replace the baby boomers who are retiring.

“Right now we have work that takes us through to Thanksgiving, and we’d love to be able to add more, but we are telling people we can’t get to things until after that,” Moretti said.

In the building industry, where word of mouth is often the best-selling point, the labor shortage poses the risk of boomeranging.

“I’m so far behind I’m worried it’s going to affect my reputation,” Barnaby, the South Royalton contractor, said. “Mostly people are understanding, but it’s not pretty.”

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