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Dells businesses turn to local workers to fill holes left by absent J-1 employees

Dells businesses turn to local workers to fill holes left by absent J-1 employees

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Wisconsin Dells businesses have had to redouble staffing efforts after COVID-19 restrictions led to limits on international worker visas, leading to some substantial changes among worker demographics.

According to Noah’s Ark General Manager Mark Whitfield, the park will fall well short of its typical J-1 staffing, expecting to only bring in half of the usual 400 international workers. When the park opened June 20, the park only had enough staff to open nine attractions, and while Whitfield expects that number to go up over the course of the summer, some areas will remain closed to the public due to insufficient staffing.

“We’re anticipating being able to open most of the other rides,” Whitfield said. “We will not open the second, smaller wave pool area, and we will not open the smaller lazy river. There may be one or two other rides where we have copies of those rides in the park that we don’t open.”

In their push to hire local staff, Noah’s Ark announced pay increases across the board, particularly lifeguards, who will see their pay go up from $10 per hour to $12. Whitfield said that the park will have its biggest local workforce since 2005.

This push comes at a key moment for Wisconsin workers. According to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Sauk County currently has a 15.5% unemployment rate, while Columbia County sits at 11.5%. According to Whitfield, Noah’s Ark isn’t the only Dells hospitality business looking to bring in disenfranchised workers.

“Every business is actively recruiting new employees,” Whitfield said. “The (Wisconsin Dells) Visitors and Conventions Bureau has advertised for that, and we are advertising as well for employees.”

The Wilderness has seen a similar spike in local employment levels to go along with Noah’s Ark. According to resort General Manager Joe Eck, the resort’s aquatic staff has double the Dells-area employees it typically sees.

Eck said that much of the influx has come from high school and college students whose schedules opened up due to statewide school closures. Without those, finding staff to fill out the park would have been much more difficult.

“A lot of people were laid off from their existing positions or their schools were cancelled,” Eck said. “And that’s probably the biggest component, the high school and college level (classes) ended early, so they were available to work. Their sport seasons are ended or not happening, so they have an availability they’ve never had before, which has really helped the recruiting process.”

In a typical summer, The Wilderness will employ more than 450 J-1 employees, but Eck said the park only has 180 international staff members currently on the premises. Similar to Noah’s Ark, the park has launched recruiting efforts around the area, as well as offering sign-on bonuses to new employees and referral bonuses to existing employees who bring in new ones. Eck said the resort currently has more domestic staff than in any other point in its history.

Eck said the resort’s administration saw the writing on the wall for summer J-1 workers back in early May, and began planning recruitment efforts then. In fact, Eck and his team hosted a unique job fair to help attract potential employees.

“We had a drive-through job fair, where you could drive through our parking lot and interview in your car,” Eck said. “We created virtual orientation, and we came up with sign-on bonuses and referral bonuses… we really recruited hard and tried to come up with ways to get people interviews, even during safer-at-home time.”

New forms of recruitment have been a focus for businesses across the Dells. According to Romy Snyder, CEO of the Wisconsin Dells Visitors and Conventions Bureau, their online job board has seen a sharp spike in searches in 2020. Although the bureau does not keep demographic information, she said that businesses have turned to local employees in lieu of J-1 workers.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in searches on our job board,” Snyder said. “I know that, for example, we are connected with the Wisconsin Job Network, and if you look at the April to June time period, in 2019 versus 2020, in 2019 there were just over 6,000 job listing accesses. This year there were close to 9,000.”

Snyder acknowledged that the labor force brought in by the J-1 program is a key component of the Dells’ workforce, one the area has depended on for years. She also pointed out that the reason the program plays such a major role is that there simply aren’t enough available workers to fill out all of the job openings at the resorts and other businesses in the Dells-Delton area.

In terms of the future, Snyder said that she does not speculate about how this influx of local work will affect hospitality employment going forward, saying that the bureau hopes for this to be a temporary issue with the J-1 workforce.

“We hope it’s not a long-term issue, we hope it’s a short-term situation,” Snyder said. “We never speculate on the future, we deal with the present. I don’t think anyone is considering this a long-term situation. We will continue to address it as time requires us to.”

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