Burnout: The workforce, mental health and the pandemic in Florence

A Siuslaw News special report

Sept. 28, 2022 — In 2019, it was business as usual for Florence’s workforce tourism industry.

“Before COVID, Florence had a tourism revenue of $147 million, and 19,050 jobs in the sector,” said Florence Area Chamber of Commerce CEO/President Bettina Hannigan.

The usual was never easy for the workforce, who for years faced housing shortages, staff shortage, and often low wages — but people found ways to survive. But the pandemic changed everything.

“Smack dab in the middle of COVID, Florence did $200.6 million in revenue with 14,150 jobs,” Hannigan said. “We went up 30 percent on our revenue, with 25 percent less people doing the work.”

As workers left, businesses struggled to fill positions. Some employers, still in the red from pandemic losses, raised wages to retain employees.

“But with inflation right now, that raise got eaten up almost entirely,” Colin Morgan, Executive Director of Food Share, said, sharing his views on what clients are seeing. “I don’t see that the worker pay situation has improved.”

At the same time, rentals in the region began to dwindle. New homes were being built, but most were out of reach for many of the workforce. The population boomed, but the new residents didn’t enter the labor market.

“You have people who work in the tech industry who work remotely, so they don’t have to interact, labor wise, in the economy,” Morgan said, who stressed that people moving in was good for the community. “But, you have less labor in the market.”

Health insurance was difficult to find, as many employees worked multiple part time jobs to stay afloat — but didn’t qualify for benefits. Other employees saw their insurance rise as the business owners tightened belts, opting for more expensive plans.

Florence’s uninsured rate of 10.9 percent for people under 65 and under is higher than the national average (9.8), state (7.3) and Lane County (8.2).

Add in how summer gas prices broke records, making already tight budgets for regional commuters tighter. And businesses, struggling with raises in rent and food costs, had to raise prices on goods and services. It put pressure on the community.

“Now they’re going to pick between their food, gas, medication and rent,” Hannigan said.

Food share saw numbers increase, with this August breaking records. However, the majority of people who use it are employed.

“People are working, it’s just that there’s not enough people to fill the jobs that are needed,” Morgan said. He added it’s not because people are lazy — “You don’t have an environment to succeed.”

After two years, the stress is affecting mental health.

“I definitely think everybody’s getting burnt out,” said Mobile Crisis Response (MCR) Program Manager Camille Griswold. “Their patience is running thinner. Their ‘give a damn’ is gone. They’re getting more cantankerous. You definitely see that a lot.”

While the stress level is high, people aren’t giving up.

“They’re worried, they’re concerned, they’re nervous — but they’re still hopeful,” Morgan said.

The chamber has aimed to be a resource for these issues, working with multiple governments, state, county and local, as well as major groups like Lane Workforce Partnerships. While they have been involved with attempting to ease the issues, Hannigan stressed no one entity can do it alone — they need to collaborate. And she believes the community can do it.

“Every leader that comes to Florence, or experiences Florence, always has a common comment: ‘I’ve never seen such a collaborative community,’” Hannigan said. “We have a lot to be grateful for and we have a lot to be proud of.”

For Griswold, it's an opportunity to listen more to people.

MCR, which runs through Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority (WLFEA), deals with a host of issues, from bereavement to mental health, for all ages and economic situations in the region. Their goal is to both help those in crisis and normalize the discussion of mental health.

“Hang in there,” Griswold said. “Help each other as much as possible. Try to be a little bit more patient with everybody. We’ll get better, hopefully, as long as we can work together.”

The shrinking workforce

The US Census reports 60 percent of the US population above the age of 16 was in the workforce. Oregon and Lane County were virtually even around 61 percent. Florence is 36 percent.

The retirement community has long dealt with this issue, and has partially mitigated it through volunteers, who annually donate hundreds of thousands of hours in the community, equivalent to well over $1 million in billable hours.

“The amount of volunteer hours that our community generates enhance our quality of our life here in Florence, absolutely,” Hannigan said.

Throughout the pandemic, they helped save businesses and got families through difficult times. But even volunteerism has dropped in some sectors, with WLFEA reporting fewer volunteer firefighters.

While the rate of poverty in Florence is on par with the U.S. and Oregon (and lower than Lane County), the median household income is lower: Workforce Oregon reported that Florence’s medium income was $42,356, below the Lane County amount of $52,426.

Hannigan pointed out that number includes retirees on a fixed income, along with the workforce. Those two demographics are core Food Share clientele.

“We see people who are still working or who are retired and can’t afford retirement,” Morgan said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, with people flush with pandemic relief funds, food share saw numbers decrease. In that time, many employees reevaluate their lives.

“A big part of Florence’s workforce retired — they didn’t need the job,” Morgan said.

Others reviewed their careers, particularly for labor intensive work.

“Sometimes maybe their body is just not able to do that for as long,” Griswold said. “There’s a lot of different things playing into it.”

Some workers went back to school so they could promote their careers. Others took advantage of the open job market, trading up for better pay or benefits, or trading down for a less stressful work environment.

Some workers decided that Florence didn’t have careers in fields that they wanted. Some left the area.

“At least for Florence, it seems the biggest issue is that folks left,” Morgan said.

Some stayed, but took themselves out of the workforce.

“They’re always at home playing video games, or watching TV, or not doing anything. Their mental health is really struggling,” Griswold said.

But it’s not that they’re lazy.

“I think it’s a generational thing,” Griswold said. “I think we have to be more patient with them. That might be hard for a lot of people.

The workers weren’t just evaluating life - they reevaluated the workforce as a whole, and if it was worth it.

Time Off

Businesses were struggling to schedule the limited staff they had left.

Hannigan, who spoke with a variety of community stakeholders on the issues facing the workforce, said the second biggest concern (behind housing) is lack of childcare, with Lane County listed as a “childcare desert.”

“If we don’t invest in it today, we’re not going to have it tomorrow,” she said.

Griswold is seeing it as well.

“Daycare is almost nonexistent or very expensive, or they have years of waitlists,” she said. “‘Do I work? Do I stay home with the kids?’ Sometimes they’re sole providers and single parents. So do they go onto welfare? Jobs try and be reasonable, but sometimes family has to come first.”

Another issue with scheduling is second jobs.

“You’d be extremely lucky to find two part time jobs working together, and get 40 hours a week, without having an absolutely monstrous schedule,” Morgan said. “One job needs them at

this time, and so does the other job. You have to cut back or cut out one of those jobs, and now you’re not making rent.”

Workers, even full time ones covering shifts, can end up devoting their entire lives to the schedule. Sometimes, it's working seven days a week, making time off impossible. Other times, it involves split shifts that can eat up an entire day.

“Traveler’s Cove went to closing two days a week, Bridgewater, Mo’s — all of this is because there’s just a limited workforce available,” Hannigan said.

For people who remained on the job, they were faced with COVID itself.

“I’ve gotten it — I’ve had all my boosters and shots and everything, and I still got it,” Griswold said. “Some people get it multiple times. It’s just our new way of life, I guess.”

COVID isolation can be as short as one day for an exposure, to a month or longer in severe cases. And in the case of families, a positive case can send multiple family members into isolation, keeping them from working or going to school.

People handle the virus differently.

“There’s a lot of, ‘I can’t see my family right now, I’m worried that I’m going to get sick, or they're going to get me sick,” Griswold said. “Or just the opposite. ‘Screw everything, we’re going to do what we want.’ Just kind of one pendulum to the next.

Whatever the reasons for shifting schedules, the workers filling in can be exhausted.

“If they just worked a very chaotic shift, then have to do another shift, they’re going to be exhausted — mentally, physically,” Griswold said. “What are we going to be putting out to our community when we have to work these back-to-back shifts of pure exhaustion?”

The schedules can have an effect on homelife.

“You have to work a full day's work, get home, and just sit on the couch. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Griswold said. “Maybe you had a real rough six, 12 or 24-hour shift. But then their family members say, ‘How come you’re not wanting to spend time with me? Come and do something with me.’”

As families struggle, social issues rise. Griswold noticed a rise in drug and alcohol youth from the youngest workforce, teens to 20s. Siuslaw Outreach Services has seen increases in domestic and sexual abuse, a pattern in difficult economic times.

For some, underpinning all of this is a sense of loss.

 The little things

“There’s definitely a lot of sadness,” Griswold said. “The human element of it is we’re still dealing with a lot of COVID burnout. People are just not having an easy time with life.”

Children lost time in school and families lost milestones as restrictions kept people isolated. Some of the most difficult were those separating families, particularly in times of death.

“I would see a lot of family members that aren’t able to say goodbye,” Griswold said. “And it’s just like, ‘I wish I could give you that.’ It just hurts. And you can’t get that part back.”

She stated it would be particularly hard on younger generations.

“The kids that didn’t even get to know their family members, they don’t even know what they missed,” Griswold said. “There’s definitely a lot of resentment.”

Two years of these conditions are starting to take a toll.

“Those managers taking the extra shifts that aren’t filled, or staff that has to fill that schedule, or not being able to spend time with family — or just go visit family,” Griswold said. “They haven’t been able to see grandkids in a couple of years, or not be able to say goodbye to a loved one. All of that’s just adding up.”

People withdraw from the community. They go out less, they spend less, they say “no” to more volunteer opportunities.

“You don’t know what’s going on in everybody’s background,” Griswold said. “Try and have a little bit more patience with people. You don’t know if they’re coming off of their second shift, or they just had a really bad day.”

Griswold encouraged people not to get isolated.

“There’s sometimes when I’m a mental wreck,” she said. “So I talk to my husband, or I play with my animals. I force myself to get out. Water the garden. You have to, sometimes, really force yourself.”

To help people, listen to them, Griswold said. And take care of yourself as well.

“You have to find that little thing that makes you happy again, and just hold on really, really tight.”

Another look

“I don't know that any of the answers are going to be easy answers,” Hannigan said. “We’re

going to have to start thinking outside the box if we’re going to be getting these solutions done.”

For years, generational differences have made relationships difficult for employers and employees, particularly when it comes to how work should look and feel.

“People aged 50 and over need to really relook at how we train and retain employees,” Hannigan said. “People bash on the millennials, and they bash on Gen Z and everyone else, but the bottom line is, this is the reality. And I for one want the people who work for me to have a really high satisfaction and their life, I want them to think that their job makes a difference, not just because they're getting a paycheck.”

Hannigan gave an example of giving more time off for employees than traditionally allowed.

“How much is it gonna cost you to hire somebody to replace them, and train them up again, and get all the history back that you just lost, because you didn't give that person an extra two weeks up because their grandmother died?” Hannigan asked.

But on the same token, how can an understaffed, underwater business provide that, along with other changes?

“I think that's very difficult because it's insecure,” Hannigan said. “People don't know how it's going to work or get advice if it doesn't work.”

It’s going to take careful conversation with a goal of consensus. But in the environment, it’s difficult getting it started.

“Our employers are so busy, they can't even break away to do that,” Hannigan said. “We can't even get to the awareness point where we're going to have a conversation with the employers.”

Despite some challenges, Hannigan did say the chamber had a wide range of partners they were working with to help find solutions on a variety of issues, from childcare to other needs.

But “the chamber can't change all of these things,” Hannigan said. “The chamber can be a voice, we can bring awareness, we can provide resources — which we do very well.”

But they can’t build solutions alone, and neither can entities like the City of Florence, Florence Food Share, or WLFEA’s Mobile Crisis Response.

To succeed, everybody has to work together.

“Yeah, there’s things that have lots of room for improvement, but fortunately we are a collaborative community, and we work well and play well together,” Hannigan said.

For more information on the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce, visit their website at florencechamber.com and sign up for their newsletter, which provides resources for businesses and informs the community of events.

To contact the MCR team for help, call 541-997-3515, the non-emergency number of emergency dispatch. In case of emergency, contact 911 and ask for MCR.

To learn more about MCR, visit svfr.org/mobile-crisis-response-team.

To learn more about Florence Food Share services, visit florencefoodshare.org.