By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Klondike Cheese in Monroe employs 171 people. But Ron Buholzer, president of the family-owned cheese company his immigrant grandfather started nearly a century ago, says Klondike should be employing a lot more people.
“We’ve got 34 open positions right now,” Buholzer said.
The cheesemaker, like so many other Badger State businesses, is mired in a severe worker shortage, hitting an economy emerging from the pandemic. The problem has been exacerbated by the generous, taxpayer-funded, $300 weekly unemployment supplement the federal government is paying out as part of trillions of dollars in COVID relief.
Buholzer shared his story Tuesday at a Capitol press conference held by Republican lawmakers proposing to, like 21 other states, do away with the incentive. As Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) put it, “We need to get people off the sidelines and into the workplace.”
Finding workers has been a struggle, Buholzer said. The company raised starting wages to $14 and then $16 “because we still weren’t getting any applicants.” He said the bump to $16 hourly has helped a little, but Klondike is still seeing few applicants.
That may have something to do with the fact that the $300 weekly federal supplement works out to about $16.75 an hour in unemployment wages. Gov. Tony Evers got rid of a work search requirement to collect unemployment, so there’s much less incentive for some to get off unemployment and back into the workforce. The Legislature is looking to bring back the work-search mandate, too.
Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) said a significant employer in his district told him companies are not longer competing with other employers or other states, they are “competing with the couch.”
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last year … when you pay people more to stay at home, they stay at home,” Marklein said.
A study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty finds up to 11 percent of the state’s workforce, which includes nearly 200,000 restaurant workers, could earn more on unemployment than by working.
Democrats insist that unemployed Wisconsinites aren’t quick to return to “low-wage jobs.” But the state is brimming with starting wage positions — many unskilled positions — above $15 an hour. And, as Vos points out, few employers that want to compete in the tight labor market are paying minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, or anything close to it.
Uline in Pleasant Prairie is looking to hire 500 employees. Starting wages for the 200 warehouse positions run north of $20 an hour.
Republican lawmakers say they are willing to negotiate on the bill to end the $300 weekly unemployment bonus, but they expect to pass the legislation as soon as possible. The supplement is supposed to expire in early September, but congressional Democrats are talking about extending it.
That would be disastrous for Wisconsin’s economy, business advocates say. With an unemployment rate at 3.8 percent (nearing pre-pandemic levels), Wisconsin’s labor market only promises to become tighter.
“The pandemic is ending. We need people to return to work,” Marklein said.