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Slammed in Seward: Worker shortage making it hard to keep up with tourists

Updated: Jun. 11, 2021 at 5:13 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Tourism towns across the state are running into a problem right now. Last year, there weren’t enough tourists. Now, there aren’t enough workers. Locals in Seward say businesses are having a hard time keeping up.

Right now, Seward City Council member and local hotelier Ristine Casagranda said that most restaurants are closing for two days out of the week because there aren’t enough workers to staff all week long. She added many restaurants are working together to spread those closed days out through the week.

Once people get a table, Casagranda said it’s usually at least a 45 minute wait. Grabbing some food to cook at home from the local Safeway isn’t much better. She said the wait time at the cashier is also extremely long.

As a hotelier, Casagranda is seeing a lot of demand at her properties. She said she is usually hiring seasonal workers who come from all over the world. These people tend to be young and have time available during the summer for extra work.

They travel to Alaska on J-1 visas for temporary employment. She said they’re having a hard time getting here because of the pandemic.

“I had four J-1 students who were supposed to arrive here middle of May,” Casagranda said. “Of the four of them, one of them just received an appointment yesterday (Tuesday) and received their visa yesterday but I’m waiting for an estimate as to his arrival date.”

In the meantime, Casagranda is counting herself lucky because she has a daughter in high school who can help her find other high school students looking for work during the summer. Although she said she’s still understaffed even with the extra hands.

According to the State Department’s website, there’s a major backlog on all types of visas due to COVID-19. The department is handling these requests in a tiered approach, and employment visas are on the bottom tier.

A lack of seasonal workers isn’t the only issue holding back numbers in the workforce in Seward. There’s also a lack of childcare, according to Casagranda and Casie Warner.

Warner is the president of Happy Youth Programs and Educational Resources, or HYPER. It’s a nonprofit Warner and others have been trying to get off the ground for a couple years to give people more options for childcare.

Through their research, Warner said there’s about 250 children in Seward who are between 5 years old or younger. Warner said there are only two licensed childcare facilities in town and, between both of those, there are only about 20 spots available for children in the area.

She said there are unlicensed providers, but they also have capacity limits. They also aren’t eligible for any kind of state or federal aid.

Warner said that childcare development would help give Seward more capabilities in the workforce in the long run.

“If Seward wants to continue to grow, and be a year-round economy, and be a year-round town, we need to support families that are living here so that they can live here year-round. And one of the building blocks of that is childcare,” Warner said.

Casagranda agrees that lack of childcare is an issue that needs to be addressed in Seward, and that it has come up at many city council meetings. However, she sees the issue as a barrier to workforce in the more professional job market like at the hospital.

But the current problem of not having enough workers to accommodate the onslaught of travelers is an issue that Casagranda said could likely be a problem until the end of the summer.

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