Service industry dropout rate in Montana skyrockets

A new study from the University of Montana shows that more service industry workers across Montana are quitting compared to other industries. Forty-seven percent of service and hospitality industry respondents said they had quit their jobs since the start of 2020, 25 percentage points more than other industries in Montana, according to the Institute for Tourism. & Recreation Research from the University of Montana.

Citing stress, high housing prices, lack of adequate childcare and the onslaught of COVID-19, workers – especially women – left jobs that were lucrative and sometimes overstaffed before the pandemic does strike, according to the study.

While some of these workers have changed jobs, the companies where they previously worked are experiencing staff shortages. And blue-collar workers are finding it harder than ever to find housing in areas where house prices have skyrocketed as remote workers across the country bought up available homes and apartments.

Retain staff

Denis Keast, co-owner of the Catalyst Cafe in Missoula, Montana, reluctantly reunites with his current employees if they’re late or decide to take a day off without notice. Keast said Catalyst Cafe currently has “great staff,” but he’s worried his employees are quitting in light of the cafe’s staff shortages that began in 2020. He said he’s doing his best possible to retain its current employees because they are “indispensable.”

“I’m afraid they’ll give up,” Keast said. “Everything seems so unstable, so unstable. So on top of all the stress of running a business, I’m always concerned about making everyone too happy, and that’s exhausting.”

In 2007, Keast and her husband purchased the breakfast and lunch establishment, which has been in business since 1991. As the pandemic escalated, businesses across the country closed temporarily or permanently; Catalyst Cafe closed for three months in 2020, Keast said. The owners then changed their business strategy to meet the needs of the public during and after the lockout, established public safety protocols in the cafe’s dining room and provided face shields for all staff.

At the start of 2020, Catalyst Cafe employed 20 people. Seven of those 20 employees “left because they didn’t want to work with the public or no longer felt fulfilled working in the restaurant business,” Keast said. And with just 14 employees this summer, Catalyst Cafe is now closing two days a week due to a staff shortage, Keast said.

He also noted that as an independent establishment, the cafe sometimes closes early or places fewer tables to accommodate staff constraints. Keast said the cafe’s financial results could suffer in the short term, but he found that the shortening of opening days and hours “maintains our mental and physical resolve in the long term”.

Housing challenges

A Montana butcher quit his kitchen job last year to escape low wages and long hours. He noted that Missoulans often struggle to make ends meet because housing costs have risen sharply in recent years and service-sector wages don’t sufficiently offset the cost of living. Part of the problem stems from new wealthy residents moving to Missoula during the pandemic, he said.

“The working class is being driven out by wealthy foreigners,” he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals. “You basically have people working full time in tents and campers all over town. But they are full of [service industry] workers trying to hold on. For example, they shower at the truck stop before work because they can’t afford their own place.”

More than 49% of Missoula County renters and 24% of Missoula County homeowners are “cost-loaded,” meaning they pay more than 30% of their income for housing, according to a housing report published by the City of Missoula.

Keast agrees with Butcher that Missoula’s affluent population has grown since the onslaught of the pandemic. “From what I understand,” he said, “a lot of these people can work remotely, so they want to live in a beautiful place, which is Missoula. But the work they do doesn’t doesn’t benefit our local economy, so it causes an imbalance.”

“There is no housing for people earning minimum wage, and without those people there is no one available to feed and service this influx of new residents,” Keast said. “It’s an unsustainable cycle.”

Sarah Dolezal is a freelance writer in Athens, Georgia.

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