With unemployment rate at 3.8% in Kansas, Ellis County grapples with a lack of employees

Alice Mannette
Hays Daily News
Caleb Garner walks across the shop floor of the Ellis County Public Works building at 280th Avenue and Old Highway 40.

The signs are all around the community: "Help wanted" or "Apply within/online."

From the Ellis County jail to the Hays Police Department to stores on Main Street, Ellis County businesses and organizations are almost begging for workers.

"This is not anything new," said Doug Williams of Grow Hays. "What we grapple with is what can we do with it."

The latest unemployment numbers from the Kansas Department of Labor set the unemployment rate at 3.8% statewide. Drilling deeper into the numbers, the department claims their total workforce population stands at slightly more than 1.5 million. Of those, 1,456,792 are employed. The department claims there are 57,730 unemployed workforce members in the state.

“This was the result of an increase in both employment and unemployment, which indicates more Kansans are entering the labor market and actively looking for work," KDOL Secretary Amber Shultz said.

Because of this worker shortage, Tucky Allen, business services director for Kansas Workforce One, said he faces a real challenge as he helps with worker recruitment for companies in 62 Kansas counties. 

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"It is a tough gig out there trying to recruit, but we can't stop," Allen said. "The biggest problem to me is the availability of the labor force."

Like the state's rates, Ellis County's unemployment rate remains low, hovering around 3%. As of July 2021, Kansas Labor Force estimates report a little more than 17,000 workers in Ellis County are employed in the civilian workforce, with 532 unemployed residents, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.

Williams, from Grow Hays, said there are many issues that have caused a snowball effect, from enrollment at the university decreasing, which leads to less students looking for jobs, to child care issues, which leads to more families changing from both parents working to only one with a fulltime job. COVID-19 has also caused many to rethink their job status, with some retiring early and others changing over to a remote environment.

Although some in Ellis County might not want to come back to work because of higher wages for unemployment due to a $300 increase in their unemployment check, Williams does not think this is that large an issue in Hays.

As businesses decrease hours, sales most likely go down and taxes for the county plummet, this causes a ripple effect. 

"Everywhere we go, even in the smallest towns, finding good help, finding any help at all is a problem," Marci Penner, the director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, said – a non-profit organization aimed at helping rural Kansas communities thrive. "The businesses we need most, like cafes and grocery stores, are closing or the workload is falling on a few, which just delays the eventual closing. It's a widespread problem."

During the July 20 Ellis County Commission Board Meeting, public works director Brendan MacKay came before the commissioners asking to change a job title from mechanic to truck driver. MacKay said this position was vacant for more than two years, and he and his crew thought they would be able to hire for a truck driver and get the position filled. 

"We won't be able to compete on the private market, but we hope our benefits make up for it," MacKay said. "It would be a position we can utilize."

MacKay said there would be more applications for the truck driver position than the mechanic one.

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According to the US. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the last 12 months, as of Aug. 11, 2021, the index for all items excluding food and energy increased by slightly less than 5%. However, energy prices jumped 27%, while food prices increased 4%.

This increase in energy costs, along with employee demand for higher wages, is also crippling area businesses. 

"The picture is clear. Workforce is an issue that must be addressed," Sarah Wasinger, president/CEO of The Chamber in Hays, wrote on her organization's website. "Additional work must be done to attract qualified workforce to Hays. This work is not something that can be done in a short time frame."

Wasinger said for the community to recommend workers if they see a help wanted sign. By doing this, they might save a small business. In addition, employers might try to recruit veterans, retirees and people with disabilities.

"There are no easy fixes," Williams said. "We just have to work our way through, and we will."

Chad Frey contributed to this piece.