NEIGHBORS: Where have the workers gone?

I got curious about why there are still long drive-thru lines, long waits at restaurants and so many help-wanted signs in Anchorage. I talked with employers, economists and a number of workers who made big job changes about what they see happening. The answer is complicated, but fascinating — a major way the pandemic has changed the city.

Here’s how today’s story begins:

Inside James Strong’s new Midtown coffee shop, Bema Coffee, the freshly painted mural, new raw wood tables and espresso machine sat ready. He wanted to start serving locally roasted coffee.

“My only problem now is employees,” he said recently. “There’s absolutely no one to work.”

Strong also owns Sweet Caribou, the salad shop next door, and has been struggling with the labor shortage for years now. Early in the pandemic when businesses were limited by mandates and workers became eligible for enhanced unemployment, he thought no one was applying because they were making more money staying home. But those benefits ran out a long time ago. And the workers haven’t come back.

“I now believe there’s a lot of variables,” he said.

The labor shortage continues to burden employers in Anchorage and across the country, especially in retail, hospitality and food service. It’s also a fact of life for consumers who have become used to long drive-through lines, long waits and restaurants closing for two or more days a week. A lot of people are asking: where have the workers gone?

Read on.