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‘Quite the conundrum’ as Washington businesses struggle to find workers

Washington businesses continue to struggle to find workers. (Getty Images)

The “help wanted” signs are up for businesses statewide, so where are Washington’s workers?

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By May 2020, more than one million Washington state residents had filed for unemployment benefits and other assistance due to the pandemic and related closures.

Now, with the state poised to fully reopen on June 30, many Western Washington employers are sounding a similar refrain: They can’t find enough workers.

“One of our malls had a hiring event,” said Washington Retail Association President and CEO Renee Sunde. “They had 112 potential applicants — only four of them were willing to take an interview.”

The restaurant industry is reporting similar struggles.

Puget Sound-based business giants Amazon, Costco, and Starbucks have all raised their minimum wages to at least $15 an hour, to lure in and hold onto employees.

“This is quite the conundrum,” said Jeff Shulman, business professor at the University of Washington.

And he says it’s not just a Puget Sound-centric phenomena.

“All of the sudden, companies can’t find enough people to work reliable hours,” he noted.

Seattle University economics professor Vladimir Dashkeev attributes at least some of this to the recent influx of federal funds.

“Stimulus benefits are quite substantial,” he said.

The $300 weekly checks from the federal government are set to continue until Sept. 4, and he says that may be making workers more willing to take a pass on the first job they’re offered in the hopes of getting a better offer down the road.

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Shulman says other factors include lingering fears about the pandemic, the availability of child care for working parents, employees going into other lines of work, and businesses all eyeing the same June 30 reopening date.

“Business is ramping up,” he said. “They need people, and they need them fast.”

For now, workers appear to have more influence over the types of jobs, hours, and pay they’re willing to work for. Dashkeev says it’s unclear how long that will continue, but he’s optimistic about the future for both businesses and their workforces.

“By and large, I’m quite positive the economy will get into good shape,” he predicted.

Shulman agrees, pointing to a history of the Puget Sound region rebounding after economic downturns.

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