When looking at the challenges facing area businesses, you can’t escape the intersection of a labor shortage and supply chain disruptions. It is hard to know where to turn, but North Country business owners are focused on moving forward. The reality is they are tired, concerned and uncertain, but steadfast in their appreciation for their employees, their customers and the positive changes they see in their future.
Eric Zeisloft, Vice President of Operations for Mold-Rite Plastics of Plattsburgh, a leading provider of high-quality caps and jars, has been leading operations at the company since 2015. While Mold-Rite was deemed essential at the start of the pandemic, its continued operation came with challenges. “We were insulated from a shutdown, but we struggled with employee retention,” Zeisloft explained. “People needed to be home, so we became more flexible.”
Management rallied around the people that continued to come to work and did their best to insulate them from the pandemic’s impact, up to and including having providers come to the worksite. Occupational and physical therapists and additional supports—including recovery meetings —were all brought in house. “We did that to make things easier for our people. Despite being scared and tired and managing their own families and households, they continued to how up for us day after day. We wanted to do whatever we could make things easier for them. Across the board we did well and we continue to improve. I’m confident our labor force will come back, hopefully after the summer.”
Efforts to become an employer of choice are not exclusive to the North Country’s manufacturing industry. It has become best practices for many area employers.
Julie Kramer, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Nine Platt Hospitality Group, operator of the Best Western hotel in Plattsburgh, was joined at a recent interview with Strictly Business by Marc Vital, General Manager of the 99 Restaurant, a tenant of the hotel. “Some of our employees have worked here for 40 years,” Kramer began. “They were
working hard before the pandemic, but for the last 18 months many of them have been working six and seven days a week.”
Kramer is not alone as she faces the demands on the workforce. Hotels and restaurants have been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. “Our industry is physically hard and demanding, and people aren’t gravitating to hospitality,” she emphasized. Across America well over 10 percent of hotel rooms have been placed out of order due to lack of staff. But despite the challenges the cross-training Best Western historically provided paid off during the pandemic, allowing staff to step in for one another when the team shrunk to fifty percent of its high season size.
As properties are reopening and more people are traveling, this should be a time for hotels to recoup pandemic losses, but staffing issues continue. Asked if there is relief in sight, Kramer expressed confidence that come September the industry will see an uptick in applications driven entirely by the termination of government provided stimulus monies along with unemployment insurance benefits.
In addition to staffing issues the hospitality industry is facing another major challenge. Being an employer of choice means something different to the millennial workforce. Pre-pandemic it was projected that by 2026 seventy-six percent of its workforce would be millennials. That timeline has been moved up to 2023. Kramer explained her plan to deal with the coming changes. “We are ready to shift to a different definition of ‘employer of choice’ by providing the things that are important to the millennial population. That will mean higher hourly wages, flexibility for daycare, and ‘emotional pay’ which will allow employees the opportunity for a better work life balance.”
While millennials are looking for different benefits, they come to the table with different strengths and skill sets and Kramer is looking forward to embracing that as well. “They are looking for employers to be more tech savvy, not only in our processes, but in our communications with them. We have to find ways to make our industry more interesting and compelling for the work force that is coming up and wants to work in our field. We will continue to strive to be an employer of choice in our ever-evolving industry,” Kramer explained. Despite the pandemic that put the entire hospitality industry on the ropes, she and her team are ready for what is next.
Marc Vital shares Kramer’s workforce philosophy as well as the same physical space. He and the 99 Restaurant have experienced the same pandemic fluctuation that have affected the industry since the shut down early spring of 2020, but the nature of the business allowed them to pivot a little more easily.
In subscribing to the “employer of choice” philosophy Vital is working to accommodate the various priorities of a new workforce. The balancing act requires embracing the strengths of a different type of employee when the tasks of the job haven’t fundamentally changed. Despite the challenges, he is grateful that turnover on his team — both front of house and kitchen — has been low. “One of the things we faced was figuring out how to change to accommodate our expanding take-out business. That has become a whole new revenue stream for us and we’re grateful for it. It has been good challenge to have.”
Supply chain issues have plagued all industries during the pandemic. To Kramer and Vital it seemed like every week there was a new shortage — from ketchup packets to chlorine shock for pools and everything in between. “We were never sure what was going to come off the truck,” Vital shared, “but we have a great relationship with our vendors, our suppliers and our neighbors.” Kramer explained the availability of linens was an issue earlier this summer. “It’s hard to stay open when you don’t have linens for your rooms,” she observed. When vital items were hard to come by, a few phone calls and North Country neighbors like Commercial Sales/Taylor Rental stepped in to look after one another.
The impact of the pandemic, the labor shortage and supply chain challenges are things North Country businesses are dealing with day to day. To cope, companies continue to care for their employees by staying engaged with them and understanding what they need as they continue their safe return to the workplace. Across the board, employers are working with their head on a swivel, managing day to day and keeping their fingers on the pulse of the next “new normal”.