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Montana's labor shortage gives restaurant workers more bargaining power

A busy restaurant kitchen. Stock photo.
bgton/Getty Images/iStockphoto
A busy restaurant kitchen. Stock photo.

It’s a tight labor market, and restaurant workers are finding they have more bargaining power to get a raise or ask for better benefits. Businesses are offering more perks to employees who stay on the job.

Mari Ward is preparing a restaurant table for guests. She says until recently it was hard having a life outside of work when she had two jobs to make ends meet.

“And it really did affect me, like I’d come home and I just wouldn’t even want to do anything afterwards.”

The 26-year-old from Missoula found a new job in August — one with better pay and a convenient ride to work.

“Well, I wanted to make some money to help provide more for my family and my son.”

Ward is bussing tables at the Montana Club restaurant, where she makes more per hour than she did before and a credit toward a meal for every shift. Staff at the restaurant also earn double time for working more than eight hours a day.

Montana Club owner Bob Powell says he’s increased starting wages by up to 25% since the start of the pandemic in order to attract and retain staff.

“I mean, our goal is just to be the best employer we can.”

Powell says his restaurants are not fully staffed but he’s hoping that’ll change soon.

“I think every store could use some people, but we haven’t, you know, fortunately, we haven’t had to reduce our hours.”

Montana faces a worker shortage, giving employees more power to switch jobs or bargain for better benefits.

The State Department of Labor and Industry says Montana last year saw its highest wages in the past two decades, yet there have been nearly 20,000 job openings per month this year.

The State Department of Labor and Industry says Montana last year saw its highest wages in the past two decades, yet there have been nearly 20,000 job openings per month this year.

The turnover rate is especially high in Montana restaurants. A recent studyon the state’s workforce by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research found that people quit their service and hospitality jobs in the past two years at a rate 25% higher when compared to other industries.

“And everybody is in the same boat,” said Brad Griffin, president of the Montana Restaurant Association.

He’s heard from business owners who offer their employees flexible work schedules, gym memberships and health insurance options.

“It’s kind of the great mystery of our time right now is where did all of our employees go? Where did all of the workers go?”

According tothe Montana Department of Labor an aging population, housing costs, caring for children or elderly family members, access to job training and pandemic-related pressures reduce the number of available workers.

Patrick Barkey, director for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, says some of this imbalance in the labor force will likely change soon.

Barkey says the uptick in help wanted signs in the state can be attributed to people spending lots of money here. Right now, he says, people are spending more than they’re earning. But that won’t always be the case.

“When that is gone and the dream vacations and all the stuff that that money paid for are no longer sustainable, you’re going to see a different trajectory for the economy.”

He says some employers have found workarounds, like fast-food restaurants turning to automation.

“I mean, all these kinds of things they didn’t have to do when you got a big fat stack of applicants every time you put a job ad out, now you do.”

When spending slows down, Barkey says, jobs will become a little more precious and employees may lose some bargaining power.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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