Labor shortage challenges North Bay employers
Celia Campos and her husband, Francisco, grew up in Calistoga and would love to live in their hometown, where their relatives still reside.
But they have realized they will never be able to afford a home in this tourist town of slightly more than 5,000 citizens with no room to grow, sandwiched between the Diamond and Howell mountains. Over the past two years, the typical Calistoga home has sold for about $850,000.
“Who can buy a home here?” Campos noted. “It’s crazy.”
And that’s a massive problem for the city’s economy, a town in Napa County where the vast majority of the 320 businesses are tied to the hospitality industry.
Like many places around the North Coast, it’s a place that relies on busboys, janitors, maids, cooks, servers and others in the service industry to provide a luxury experience for the affluent visitors who drive the local economy.
But business owners realize there are virtually no workers available to hire in Calistoga, where the unemployment rate was an astounding 0.8 percent in October. They are scrambling to do something to change that.
“Hands down, the No. 1 issue is access to a qualified workforce,” said Chris Canning, president of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce.
Earlier this year, merchants working with the Chamber of Commerce launched a program to ferry workers in a shuttle - a luxury coach with leather seats and wifi - to Calistoga from three different stops in Santa Rosa, charging a nominal fee to the employees.
Research found that about 22 percent of Calistoga workers came from Santa Rosa, 21 percent from Napa and as far south as Vallejo, and around ?11 percent from Lake County, Canning said.
The program was scrapped after two months. Only a handful of workers participated, and businesses were reluctant to continue the program without better results.
But Canning is convinced that another employer-sponsored effort will have to be done, especially as two major resorts are scheduled to open in Calistoga within two years, requiring another 500 workers.
“This is a very different job market than we were used to in the past,” he said. “Gone are the days in the hospitality business where you can run on part-time workers with no benefits.”
Welcome to the new normal in the North Bay, an economy largely represented by service workers, given how much tourism drives the area. But the worker shortage is not just limited to the hospitality sector. Overall, unemployment in Sonoma County stood at 3.9 percent in October, compared to 5.3 percent for California and 4.7 percent for the nation during the same period. Napa County was at 3.8 percent and Marin County was at 3.3 percent.
Calistoga arguably has experienced the most severe shortage of workers in the North Bay, but analysts say no city is immune to the pressures, which will only get worse barring an economic setback, such as a recession.
Areas such as construction, health care and manufacturing are also facing a worker crunch, said Heather LoBue, business services program manager for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. LoBue helps local businesses find qualified workers and sees firsthand where the greatest needs are.
“I think people have to get on board, especially employers, and figure out a plan or a strategy,” LoBue said.
Some will have to hike wages. The minimum wage is $10 an hour, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation this year taking it to $15 an hour by 2022. But locally, entry-level pay starts at around $12 an hour in many places that have experienced worker shortages, employers said, and will reach $15 an hour much earlier than the state mandate.
In fact, the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board recently surveyed job seekers to determine what type of pay range they expected. Applicants overwhelmingly put in a range from $15 to $18 an hour, LoBue said.
But employers also will have to go beyond pay and look at benefits and other perks as well, she said.
If the business community wants further proof, they can ask the Camposes.
The two work at the Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga, she as the shipping fulfillment coordinator and he as the warehouse manager, commuting from their Santa Rosa home 40 minutes each way on an increasingly crowded Mark West Springs Road. The couple have three children ages 9, 7 and 3. They have to get out on time to pick up the children in after-school programs at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Rosa before it closes at 6 p.m.
So why do they put up with such a commute when there are plenty of available winery jobs closer to their home?
“It’s definitely because of the company,” Campos said. “It’s nice to be appreciated that way by the boss.”