Tourism economy booms, but finding help proves elusive
By Jacob Wheeler
The streets of downtown Frankfort are packed with tourists, beachgoers, and shoppers. The tills hum at businesses up and down Main Street as ice cream cones, t-shirts, and pints of beer fly over the counter.
But “help wanted” signs on storefronts and restaurant entrances are becoming just as ubiquitous in our tourism boomtowns up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline.
In Frankfort, Fusion needs four employees to make it through the summer season, including a busser, a dishwasher, and a host, as well as help this fall once current employees return to school. Even Crystal Mountain, the largest employer in Benzie County, still needs bartenders, housekeepers, and certified lifeguards to get through the busy summer season. Over in Honor, the Plate River Inn has been looking for a cook for more than a year, and they have been short two servers since April. Up M-22 in nearby Glen Arbor, Anderson’s Market owner Brad Anderson was seen stocking the shelves of his upscale grocery store last month, because he did not have young workers to do the job.
Allana Bostick, 15, got a late start on the summer job search. She has applied—to no avail—at several locations in the Grand Traverse Mall and in Lake Ann, both close to where she lives.
“I’m now widening my job search and applying at places like Crystal Mountain and Momentum [in Frankfort], because I know they’re looking for people,” says Bostick, who concedes that these jobs are a little further from home than she would like.
Housing and Worker Shortage
The Homestead resort commanded statewide news after it announced on June 26 that it would close its Italian-themed sports bar, Beppi’s, and its child daycare center, Camp Tamarack, after not a single applicant appeared at its job fair. The Homestead’s announcement sent shudders through the small-town seasonal tourism industry and punctuated a growing dilemma: while towns like Glen Arbor and Frankfort are thriving during the high summer months—thanks in large part to the Midwest-wide Pure Michigan campaign and Good Morning America recognizing Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as “the most beautiful place in America” in 2013—businesses in these towns are sometimes victims of their own success.
All of the attention on the Sleeping Bear region has helped drive up real estate values, attracting an older and well-heeled crowd to live here. It has made affordable housing for working-class families within the town limits all but impossible. Often the lone sources of employees for a six- to eight-week summertime job are local high school students or the children and grandchildren of summer residents who own a second home on Crystal Lake. And when Labor Day weekend arrives, they return to their studies, or to their primary homes downstate, leaving their employers empty handed.
A lot of discussion in the local media lately has fallen on two issues: affordable housing and livable wages.
“The big picture is that we need to figure out more workforce housing,” says Frankfort superintendent Joshua Mills, who believes that local government ought to be proactive in finding a solution.
For Crystal Mountain Resort, the problem lies with finding full-time employees, according to Amy Woodworth, director of human resources. Crystal Mountain has 520 employees on payroll during the winter ski season.
“We cannot compete with other service employers in the region—especially with retail in Traverse City,” she told the Advocates for Benzie County during a Building a Better Benzie forum on June 16. “And we have problems attracting employees because of inadequate housing and distance. We currently have some limited housing on site, but we’re not going to attract people coming in 30 miles to work for $12 to $13 an hour.”
Finding housing is a huge stumbling block for both professionals and lower-paid employees at Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital, which has 200 full- and part-time employees.
“To get the younger people who prefer Boulder or Burlington, we need to add more recreational opportunities,” noted Roger Perry, a Paul Oliver board member, at last month’s forum. “But skilled employees cannot find housing, and they see the existing stock in Benzie as sub-standard, middle-income housing.”
In the absence of a viable plan for workforce housing, businesses have to fight over the shrinking crop of workers. Those that are able offer higher wages to attract them; those that cannot will have to survive the summer season short-staffed or curtail their hours and services.
Ron Heffelfinger, business liaison for Michigan Works in Benzie and Manistee counties, is not joking when he says that, just three years ago, a housekeeper at a local hotel used to make between $8.50 (Michigan’s current minimum wage) and $9 an hour. Now they can get $12 to $13 an hour.
“There is upward pressure for employers to increase wages in order to get different folks,” he says. “Tourism in our area is no longer just the summer months. Fall is also a great season for hospitality employers. But they’re going to struggle, because they don’t have enough college kids to work.”
Help from Jamaica
Harbor Lights Resort has 80 rental units and a staff of 22 employees, mostly seasonal workers. Three summers ago, owner Steve Campbell found that his crop of seasonal employees—particularly housekeepers—was drying up.
“We had a situation where we didn’t have rooms available, because we didn’t have workers to clean them,” he remembers.
So Campbell took the innovative, but foreign, step of hiring Jamaican housekeepers last year through the federal H2B guestworker visa program. To house them, he bought a home on M-115, a mile and a half from his lakeside resort in downtown Frankfort. The employees who live in this home pay rent for six months of the year to Campbell, from May until early November, returning to the Caribbean before the snow flies.
“It’s never been a problem due to wages,” Campbell says. “We continually raise the starting wage and provide pay hikes during employment. It’s the housing issue that continues getting worse. We would love to expand on to providing year-round rentals, but we can’t do it without staff. I see an opportunity to band together with other services and pool our resources to develop a housing option.”
Eight Jamaican women first traveled here in 2015 to work as housekeepers at Harbor Lights; the experience was mutually beneficial, and all eight returned this summer. They use the Benzie Bus to commute between work and home.
“We’d prefer locals who want employment,” says Campbell, whose family has owned Harbor Lights Resort since the 1960s. “But we didn’t get the interest from locals. Many would like to spend their summers up here and work, but finding a place to live is the hardest thing. There comes a point where we need to do what it takes to continue to operate. Bringing in the Jamaicans was a necessity.”
“We are very happy with the people we’ve gotten,” Campbell adds. “The program is a lifesaver for us. They make a great sacrifice to come here for six months and display an attitude and work ethic that we hope for.”
The eight Jamaican women—most of whom come from the cities of Kingston and Montego Bay, and whose ages range from 29 to 37—joined an existing Harbor Lights staff of about 30 workers, which shrinks to 12 in the off season.
The Betsie Current recently interviewed four of the eight Jamaicans—Chrastantia Jarrett, Donneiilliems Williams, Cleopatra Gayle, and Resa Allen—and they spoke glowingly of their experience in Frankfort over the past two summers. Allen Googled “Harbor Lights Resort” and “Frankfort Michigan” upon learning of the work opportunity through the Jamaican government, and her search discovered a locale and job that was “family oriented, clean, and respectful.” Once she arrived, the destination did not disappoint.
“The people here are so nice!” Allen giggles. “When you walk the streets, everyone knows us already. They ask, ‘You’ve come so far. Don’t you miss your families?’”
Most of the Jamaicans are supporting children back home, whose ages range from five to 18; they hope to send the next generation to college. The workers say that wages at Harbor Lights Resort far exceed what they have made working in the hospitality industry in Jamaica. The housekeepers also speak warmly of Campbell, who offered a hug and made them feel welcome upon arrival. If given the opportunity, they hope to return again next year.
Asked what Frankfort lacks, the women joke only that “it’s cold here!” in the spring and fall, and that they wished the local eateries such as A&W offered home delivery. But overall, they seem content with their six-month stays and grateful for the opportunity. They work five or six days each week. On their off days, the Benzie Bus allows them easy transit to visit Traverse City, where they like to shop at the mall.
“We always meet interesting people on the bus,” laughs Allen. “The drivers are cool, especially Ernie!”
Campbell hopes that other businesses will use the Benzie Bus as a creative solution to alleviate their worker shortage.
“With the advent of the bus system, we could reach out further to people who don’t live in town,” Campbell says. “It would give us the ability to recruit more college students from around the area who want to work in hospitality, hotels, and restaurants and who want to spend their summers working in Benzie or Leelanau counties.”
Innovative Solutions Attract Employees
Other businesses that ramp up summer operations have found that innovative incentives attract employees.
In Frankfort, Stormcloud Brewing Company offers employees an extra $50 if they refer a friend who joins the staff and lasts at 30 days “in good standing,” says co-owner Rick Schmitt.
In Glen Arbor, Cherry Republic offers to match $1 per hour in a college savings account between May 1 and September 1 for all employees in, or planning to attend, college. The company increases the match to $1.50 per hour during the second year of employment. Its college-match program doubled in enrollment this year. Cherry Republic also reportedly pays “higher” than the average seasonal rate of $11 to $13 per hour. Many employees receive a $1 per hour pay increase when they return the following year.
Leelanau Vacation Rentals (LVR) also begins recruiting housekeepers and other staff long before peak season and begins paying employees advance salaries just to secure them. Wages have increased over last year, and the vacation rental company offers bonuses for returning staff. CEO Ranae Ihme reports that LVR is fully staffed this summer.
Like Harbor Lights Resort, The Homestead resort in Glen Arbor also imports foreign workers through the guestworker visa program, joining a list of Northern Michigan hospitality businesses that includes the Grand Traverse Resort and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. The Homestead has contracted with foreign workers for more than two decades. Some return year after year, and their experience is reportedly a positive one. The Homestead is able to provide some on-site housing—for a bargain rate of $220 per month, plus utilities—and they are given access to the resort’s amenities, including free golf and skiing and a 35 percent discount on salon and spa services.
The Homestead currently employs 200 full-time and part-time workers but could use 25 to 30 more. Wages start at $8.50 to $9 per hour for seasonally employed high school students. The resort also offers signing bonuses, retention bonuses, employee-referral bonuses, and reimbursements for employees who use the BATA bus to commute to work. One such employee commutes all the way from Cadillac.
Despite The Homestead’s attempts to incentivize working at “America’s freshwater resort,” the Italian sports bar Beppi’s remains closed until further notice. Resort management hope that affordable housing or public transit become part of a creative solution in the future to increase the crop of willing workers.
Otherwise, businesses worry, America’s “most beautiful place” threatens to become America’s most understaffed place.