Bartender Niki Piacente mixes a martini at Last Stop Saloon in downtown The Dalles. As service businesses in the Gorge look to reopen, managers are struggling to hire sufficient staff for the summer season, which is expected to be busier than normal due to pent up demand.

Hood River — If COVID-19 restrictions continue to improve, this summer’s tourist season in the Columbia Gorge promises to be better than last year — much better.

Now, area service industry employers are faced with a new worry. Will their workers return after last year’s pandemic hiatus? Right now, it appears the answer is: Maybe.

This month Hood River county and port officials — both agencies hire summer help to do everything from pick up trash, clean bathrooms and staff special events — noted the lack of applicants for summer jobs. The worry was prompted by an unexpected sunny weekend flurry of visitors to port facilities in April, most of which were not yet opened. Hood River Port officials wondered if their official July 1 was an early enough start date, or if their seasonal worker budget, now at $18,000 per month, was enough.

“Can we move that date to be sooner?” asked Port Commissioner Kristi Chapman, who noted that recent sunny weather was a wake-up call for already overwhelmed riverfront services. Waterfront Manager Daryl Stafford reported that the port, as of April 20, had no applicants and only two returning employees for at least 12 open summer positions.

“We can’t open the restrooms until there’s staff,” Stafford said, although she said portable restrooms are an option. “This will be an ongoing problem for all businesses,” she said of the possible lack of employees.

Service employee shortage far-reaching

Chapman and Stafford were not alone in their concerns. Gorge business owners who depend on visitors, hope to reopen their doors with a full crew. That hope, however, is looking bleak state-and-nationwide.

In Oregon, unemployment recovery has ticked up from 13 percent last year to 6 percent, according to State of Oregon Employment Department (OED) statistics. Two-thirds of the employment gains in March were leisure and hospitality jobs statewide, but the industry, which lost more than 100,000 jobs during the pandemic, still has far to go, according to Gail Krumenauer, state economist.

Local business owners agree.

“Hood River is a seasonal town. Our spring staff-up for restaurants is always a challenge. This year, however, is unlike any other. On top of the difficulties from COVID closures we face scarce options for capable hires. Our ability to recover, ultimately to survive this past year is at grave risk,” Ben Stenn, owner of Celilo Restaurant & Bar in Hood River, said in a recent Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association survey. ORLA conducted the survey to assess similar worker shortages statewide.

Aaron Baumhackl, owner of Solstice Wood Fire Café in Hood River, said that many of his staff have left the hospitality business to take “9-to-5 jobs.”

“If we don’t have a cook, we don’t have a restaurant,” said Leslie VanSickly of The Dalles Country Club. Full Sail Brewery’s restaurant in Hood River has curtailed its seating capacity and online orders due to a shortage of staff, according to Lisa Merkin, the pub’s general manager.

While some local employers blame the slow return to work on extended unemployment benefits, statistics suggest other factors are in play, according to Dallas Fridley, regional economist for the OED. Of more than 600 unemployment claims from hospitality workers last April in Hood River and Wasco counties, there now remain only 80 active claims in that sector. More likely, those workers have moved on to other industries, Fridley said. The pandemic has created other worries for returning workers: lack of childcare, lack of vaccinations, and concern for exposing susceptible family members at home. Better wages, flexible hours and better benefits are among ways employers can attract service industry workers, he said. Employers might also consider training inexperienced workers.

“Not a bunch of people are drawing claims and not going back to work. Claims are improving,” Fridley said.