(Names of some interview subjects are disguised to protect their privacy. –Editor)
GHENT—They are seemingly everywhere. Hiring signs line Columbia County’s major roads. Are Columbia County businesses finding the workers they need? In a virtual interview the question was posed to Michael Tucker, president and CEO of Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC). His response was, “No. Not enough people.”
That’s not a situation likely to be remedied based on U.S. Census data. The county’s senior population increased 36% since the last Census and now makes up 25% of Columbia County. The 18 and younger population decreased 34% and currently makes up 16% of the county’s population. Growth was flat for other age groups.
Referencing the 2020 Census, Mr. Tucker said Columbia County has 2011 “identified businesses” that employ 22,000 workers, leaving “700 people out of work or looking for work.” Columbia County’s low unemployment rate, 2.4% in May 2022, was 1.7% lower than the state average. Said Mr. Tucker, “People think everything is rosy. But low unemployment is not favorable to people looking for work.”
According to the U.S. Census, half of the county’s businesses are in the service industry and 75% have less than 10 employees. Mr. Tucker acknowledged that there is “clearly a disconnect” between what businesses are offering in terms of wages and benefits and what workers want.
Mr. Tucker added that Columbia County is part of the “national trend” of jobs with very good benefits to no benefits and a “host of jobs at minimum wage.” He noted that a retail clerk likely has no benefits and earns the minimum wage.
Mr. Tucker could be describing D.S. of Copake, a Taconic Hills graduate with “some college.” D.S. started working as a cashier at a local supermarket chain six years ago. Her hourly pay was $12.75 but she received no benefits. After three years, she took a 6-month hiatus then returned to work at the store’s Courtesy Desk. The promotion resulted in a $1/hr. wage increase but still no benefits.
After two more years, D.S. quit again. D.S. says that she left because she could not get “enough hours.” D.S. was limited to “20 to 25 hours” a week, which necessitated her getting two additional part-time jobs, also in retail sales.
Regarding future prospects, D.S. wants “to go back to school and get a business license to open a doggy care business.” When asked if she would have stayed at her previous job if a full-time position with benefits had been offered, D.S. answered an emphatic, “Yes.”
Mr. Tucker admitted that part-time workers are a “little more difficult to determine” if they receive benefits. As an example he said that a part-time worker at Walmart “could get benefits.” His associate, Senior Economic Developer Jessica Gabriel, allowed how post-pandemic “priorities shift” and that some workers prefer to be “part of the gig economy.”
The preference for multiple part-time jobs is something that restaurant owners, K.B. and S.B., learned over two years since opening in Hillsdale in February 2020. After cycling through “100 employees” and “several iterations from fine dining to fast and casual” they have settled on a “core staff” of 8 full-time and 14 part-time workers.
Up to September 2021, K.B. said that they could not get enough cooks and servers. Also, the restaurant closed twice due to Covid; yet it managed to stay afloat and pay workers through PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans.
Both owners agree that it is “not possible” to live on the minimum wage. Front-of-house workers, servers and bussers earn $10 – $12.50/hr. plus tips. Back-of-house workers, cooks and dishwashers earn $16 – $22/hr.
Also, there are some benefits. Workers can access health insurance through the company, which also makes 401 contributions, and has apartments that workers could rent. However K.B. noted that few take advantage of the benefits.
K.B. added that workers average 15 – 40 hours per week. “They can work as many hours as they want.” But everyone has another job “or multiple jobs. This is a second job for most people.”
The 2021 Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) reports the average annual wage for New Yorkers, employed in the Food and Beverages industry, is $28,868 compared to a median income of$68,000 in Columbia County.
Mr. Tucker cited the tourism/hospitality industry as the third largest employer in Columbia County, saying that the Hudson Valley is a “tourist destination.” A 2009 CEDC report on key industries in Columbia County notes, “Columbia County is increasingly dependent on tourism, with 6.6% of all labor income and 7.8% of all employment sustained by visitors.”
Are blue collar workers being priced out of the area? R.M. has worked for a small fuel supply company in Hillsdale for 26 years. He worked his way up from driver dispatch to seasonal driver to full-time driver to mid-management, and shares responsibility with other management staff for hiring drivers and service workers
Despite offering a benefits package that includes health and dental insurance, vacation pay and performance bonuses along with an entry level wage of $22 – $24/hr., R.M. says, “Good workers are hard to find.” He admits driving a fuel truck is “not easy.” The work is “high risk” and “physical.” The hoses alone weigh 250 lbs. and navigating driveways is “always touchy,” he said.
R.M. said that the company “makes an investment in people” by training drivers, helping them get commercial driver’s licenses, offering background checks and finger printing services. Also, new drivers are assigned to experienced drivers for one year.
He described the preferred worker as someone who “completes an initial run of 15 deliveries, returns to the office for another delivery assignment of 10 – 15 calls.” And when finished, returns to the office and is helpful by picking up “a broom or wrench” until quitting time.
R.M. identified housing costs as the main threat to getting good blue collar workers. They “cannot afford to live here,” R.M. said that he knew, personally, of two guys paying between $1,000 – $1,200/monthly to rent a trailer and a refurbished body shop. “It’s becoming a real issue.”
Mr. Tucker concurred, saying, “If you are not in a house you cannot afford a house.” According to Columbia Indicators, the May 2022 median sale price for a single family home was $430,000. Also there were 43% fewer single-family homes listed for sale.
2020 Census data reports monthly median costs for Columbia County homeowners with a mortgage at $1,681 and without a mortgage at $661.
Mr. Tucker said that the “real issue” is affordable housing. He said the lack of infrastructure limits where affordable housing can be built. He noted that of the 18 towns and four villages comprising Columbia County, only six communities outside the City of Hudson—Chatham, Philmont, Hillsdale, Valatie, Germantown and Greenport—have septic systems. Mr. Tucker added, “[These] challenges result from the county’s success.”
Mr. Tucker described the county’s 4,500 second-home owners as a sort of wildcard in the local housing market. “Will they stay or return” to the urban centers from where they came? Second homeowners account for 15% of owner-occupied single-family homes.
Mr. Tucker disputed the observation that higher education is a prerequisite for middle class earnings. He pointed to workforce training and certificate programs as effective resources to good paying jobs.
‘If you are not in a house you cannot afford a house.’
Michael Tucker, president and CEO
Columbia Economic Development Corporation
However L.B. in Copake purposefully turned to higher education to meet her goal of “making a good living off of horses,” which she admitted is “not easy to do.” L.B. has a degree in Equine Science from UNH-Durham and an MA degree in social work from the University of Albany.
L.B. is both the owner of a stable and a per diem psychiatric clinician at Columbia Memorial Hospital, where she puts in 35-40 hours per week.
She also took the hospital job last year in order to have health insurance. Other benefits include holiday and bonus pay, plus paid time off. Her entry level pay was $25/hr.
Although the stable brings in $75,000 – $100,000 annually, all money is “plowed back” into it, and L.B. anticipates a deficit this year due to increased prices “for everything.”
L.B. plans to get an Equine Therapy License and have her own therapy program, which she thinks is viable due to the proximity of Boston and New York City. The license requires three years of supervised work. L.B. has one more test to take and two more years of supervised work. Then she can renegotiate her contract with the hospital.
L.B. recommends, “If you want the hours work at the hospital.” She said there are “tons of openings, entry and advanced.”
According to Mr. Tucker the 2020 U.S. Census identifies healthcare, government and education as the top industries in Columbia County for higher entry level pay and full benefit packages.
The CEDC focuses on helping manufacturing, hospitality and agribusinesses. The “Columbia Forward Initiative,” headed by Ms. Gabriel, is a half-million dollar program of grants and loans for existing businesses.
Eligibility requirements are businesses must operate in Columbia County for a minimum of two years and have 25 or fewer employees. Loans of up to $25,000 carry a 3.75% interest rate for a 10-year term. Grants are capped at $2,500.The program runs for three years.