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Flathead labor shortage leads to restaurant delays, closures

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Posted at 4:35 PM, Apr 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-14 18:53:20-04

KALISPELL — Restaurants around the country are struggling to find workers to keep their doors open and it's an issue that's starting to become a major problem in Northwest Montana.

The Montana Department of Labor shows the current unemployment in Flathead County sits at 6.3%. That translates to 3,021 workers who are unemployed.

But restaurants say they’re still struggling to fill staffing shortages.

“We were consistently needing to bring people from other locations to help operate day to day which was depleting our staff in those other locations,” Montana Coffee Traders Café Coordinator Jessie Farns told MTN News.

Farns said the longtime Flathead Valley business has temporarily closed their downtown Kalispell location due to staffing shortages.

“In anticipation of a very busy summer, decided that the best course of action, for now, was going to be to pause service in that location, focus on the other locations making sure they’re staffed and running for the summer and then down the line will look at what our Kalispell presence is going to be,” said Farns.

Farns believes workers are leaving the service industry at a high rate due to a work environment that’s become more stressful during the pandemic, enforcing increased safety restrictions while dealing with unruly customers.

“It gives people this opportunity to think maybe they want to do something else, so we’ve seen a number of people that have been in this type of industry for a while, at this time choose to do something else,” said Farns.

Meanwhile, KOBE Steak and Sushi in Kalispell is experiencing delays in service due to the inability to hire new employees.

“Longer wait times, longer stay times, we’ve just been asking people to have a little bit more patience and kindness toward the staff that are here to work," KOBE Assistant manager Rhonda Doan tells MTN News.

Doan said her restaurant is currently down six employees. “We don’t have any applicants coming in, nobody’s showing up to their scheduled interviews when they do apply, there’s no workforce to even try to select from and it’s just very frustrating because there’s work."

Farns believes the lack of affordable housing across the Flathead Valley is pushing workers out of service industry jobs and into different fields of work.

“It’s been bad, it’s been an issue we’ve all been talking about for years, it’s crucial to our small businesses for our employees to live in the Flathead and be able to live near they work, and this past year has just amplified that problem without creating any solutions on the other side of it,” said Farns.

Doan is asking customers to show kindness toward service workers as restaurants try to come up with solutions, "kindness goes a long way, a long way."

Farns said Montana Coffee Traders Café locations in Whitefish, Columbia Falls and in the mercantile location off U.S Highway 93 will remain open throughout the busy tourism season. She added there is no timetable for if and when the Kalispell location will reopen.