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360: The efforts to help Wisconsin's workforce recover

Posted at 5:25 AM, May 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-27 07:50:13-04

MILWAUKEE — "We're hiring" signs are everywhere right now. But, there's growing debate over why. Some people say there is a workforce shortage. Others say workers are simply in a position to demand better wages right now.

To understand each side of this conversation, we are going 360. We talk to a Wisconsin senator pushing to end federal unemployment supplements and to an unemployed mom in a position to take a break from the workforce. We also hear from a worker's union saying low wages are the issue and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association that explains other factors at play. But, we start with business owners who are desperately looking to hire.

The efforts to help Wisconsin's workforce recover

"Right now we are working with a skeleton crew like very, very small," said Charles Fowlkes who owns Coaches.

As vaccination rates climb and as the CDC issues update guidance, people are ready to go out and visit their favorite local businesses again. But, the people who own those businesses say they are struggling to reopen.

"We are short-staffed at all of our restaurants right now. We are considering delaying the opening of one of our restaurants in Shorewood until the fall. It is unprecedented. It is a huge challenge to our industry," said Dan Sidner, Co-owner Black Shoe Hospitality.

According to the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, 22% of Wisconsin's workforce in the restaurant and hospitality industry hasn't come back since the start of the pandemic. In Milwaukee County, that number is closer to 38%.

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"You've got the perfect storm of a lot of people who have left the industry, they went elsewhere, or they're sitting on the sidelines, or they don't have daycare..." said Kristine Hilmer, President of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

Hilmer said because of travel restrictions, there's also a lack of international employees who normally help fill summer jobs, and there's a growing trend of teens not needing or wanting to work. And, she said there's also an issue with benefits for those who lost their jobs last year.

"The enhanced unemployment benefits and not requiring work search is having some folks sit on the sidelines," said Hilmer.

That's why Wisconsin Senator Howard Marklein wants to end the $300 per week federal supplement for unemployed people. Right now, the benefits go through September 2021.

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"We are not taking the safety net away. The state unemployment benefit remains at whatever level they were at. This is just the $300 additional supplement that people are receiving per week," Senator Marklein, who is the chairman of the Legislature's budget committee.

He's worried that the current benefits are discouraging people from applying for jobs. He says right now, on average, people are being paid roughly $16.75 to not work.

"I talked to a business in my area that has 80 openings and they had to cancel a one point six-million-dollar order from a customer last week," said Marklein.

Jillaine Kowski is an unemployed mother who has a different perspective. She and her husband lost their jobs during the pandemic.

"I was doing nails for 26 years. That's all I pretty much knew," said Kowski.

She began collecting unemployment. But as time went on, she decided it was best for her family to stay home.

"I have saved quite a bit of money from that whole situation and so I am kind of sitting in a good position right now that I would like to go back, and I've even had jobs lined up, I had a third shift job lined up, then-husband got third shift with more money," said Kowski.

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In Jillaine's situation, you might see why some argue workforce is not the issue.

"First of all, we don't have a workforce shortage, we have a wage shortage. The truth is there's a shortage of employers willing to pay people a living wage that they're willing to work for," said Peter Rickman, President of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers (MASH).

As president of the local workers union, he said what America is experiencing is a labor market broken before the pandemic that has now been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He believes raising wages could solve the hiring issue quickly.

"We've got workers who are essentially saying we're withholding our work until we're paid an appropriate wage," said Rickman.

Wisconsin reinstated its requirement that people collecting unemployment benefits must prove that they're looking for work. It's a rule that was suspended during COVID-19.

Wisconsin's unemployment rate in April was 3.9 percent, while the national unemployment rate in April was 6.1 percent.

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