Montana Public Radio

Seasonal Work Will Look Different Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Oct 13, 2020

It’s almost that time of year when businesses staff up for the holidays and winter season. But with the pandemic and recession, seasonal hiring will look different in Montana.

Jennifer Clouse owns Skin Chic, a spa with two locations in Missoula. She employs about 20 people and says it’s been a tough year to run a business that requires close contact between employees and customers. 

"We’ve had to change our business structure a little bit and how we do things to make sure that we keep afloat," she says.

Because of the size of her business, she wouldn’t normally hire seasonal staff. But she would extend the hours of her permanent staff. This year, she says she can’t justify that because fewer customers have been coming in. She also says that she hopes the local mall, which sets the hours for one of her stores, keeps holiday hours shorter than in other years. 

"If they keep this going with those reduced hours, that will help us quite a bit on not having to staff extra during the holidays."

The hiring website Indeed released a study this month that says this year’s seasonal job postings across the country are already 11 percent behind where they normally are at this stage in the holiday hiring season. It also says job seekers are more likely to be hired for permanent positions as companies make up for losses from earlier in the year. 

Montana State University Economics Professor Greg Gilpin adds that the strains on retail and tourism that have been a theme for most of 2020 are likely to last well into next year.

"It's a challenging job market."

The unemployment rate in Montana stands at 5.6 percent, which is better than the national rate, but still two points up from where it was pre-pandemic. And that doesn’t account for the Montanans who have become discouraged by the job market and given up looking. Gilpin says that number is likely fairly high. 

He also says as long as social distancing is in effect and government-mandated shutdowns are possible, retailers both big and small aren’t likely to hire in big numbers. Gilpin says the pandemic has already accelerated the popularity of online shopping and decline of malls, department stores and other in-person retail, too. 

"So with regards to retail, especially related to holiday shopping, we’ll continue to see a strong downward trend in retail employment, and frankly, the number of establishments."

Out-of-state vacationers came to Montana in droves this summer. But that likely has an expiration date. Across the country and especially in Montana, people are taking more long-distance trips than they did last year, even as plane travel is limited and unpopular. Gilpin says fewer people will want to make those trips as the weather changes and road conditions get worse. 

Businesses that cater mostly to locals, however, might not have that same problem. Travis Crawford is the general manager of Great Divide Ski Area. Most of his clientele is local, so pandemic-related travel barriers don’t affect them. He’s optimistic for the winter season because of how many people chose to spend their freetime outdoors this summer during the pandemic. Yellowstone National Park just reported its busiest September ever and sales across the nation of equipment like mountain bikes and RVs are booming. 

"We think that'll continue through into winter, and carry through with a lot of people that just want to be outside."

He says he’s hiring more staff this year than he normally would. Crawford typically hires 75 temporary workers in a season, but this year, he’s bumping that up to over 100. The extra hires are mostly because of COVID-19. He needs more dedicated sanitation workers and people to float between positions in case other employees come down with the virus. 

Crawford says he’s actually more worried about finding workers than he is about skiers showing up. 

"There's a significant portion of the population that has concerns about being public-facing and wants to limit their exposure."