Northwest NEWS

January 4, 1999


DQ owner tempts job seekers with hiring bonus

by Andrew Walgamott, staff reporter

   WOODINVILLE--There's a never-ending need for help in the fast food industry, but a local franchise owner has taken the unusual step of offering a bonus to lure in those seeking jobs.

   Motorists heading out of Woodinville--or to the high school--may have noticed the sign at Dairy Queen reading "Day help needed: $100 hiring bonus." A hot job market and a lack of applicants coming in the door is sparking this, said owner Mike Maloney.

   "It's the most competitive situation we've experienced for getting help," said Maloney, an Eastside resident who has operated the franchise for the past seven years.

   The market is so tight--Maloney even offered the reporter interviewing him a job--that he says people must be hired on the spot because if you call them back later that night, they've likely found a job somewhere else.

   Dairy Queen, among the oldest fast food franchises in Woodinville, isn't just competing with other in-and-out restaurants for employees, but with stores at the city's new shopping center. This year, Target, Top Foods, Woodinville Cinemas, Barnes & Noble, and a string of others along the city's main street opened their doors. TRF Pacific, which developed the 44-acre complex, estimated in 1995 it would create 685 full- and part-time jobs.

   The big red dot emanating from one of the big box retailers there makes an inviting target, but don't blame them for Maloney's troubles. TRF officials said some there have had problems finding employees, as well.

   Confirmed Patti High, Woodinville Target human resources manager, "We were understaffed by 50 people at one point."

   "And that's 50, not 15," she emphasized. A full crew is 160 outside the holiday season.

   "All the businesses in the vicinity are hard up for employees," adds Taco Del Mar manager Roger Morrell.

   Morrell's problem is similar to Maloney's. "Nobody turns in applications. When they do, they work one day, then leave," he laments.

   Morrell said it wasn't hard to find employees for the Bellevue store he managed, and at a Renton location, there were too many people. But in Woodinville, it's to the point where Morrell says he's almost ready to put out a sign reading, "No shoes, no shirt, no reason you can't work here."

   Still, the problem isn't confined to Woodinville, and it hasn't just surfaced recently.

   "Across the whole area, it's difficult to find people willing to work," said Bernard Garbusjuk, plant manager for Issaquah's landmark Boehm's Homemade Swiss Candies. In late 1997, the company was forced to cut back hours it was open at its facility beside I-90 to deal with the lack of labor.

   "There's not a lot of blue-collar work force available," Garbusjuk notes. As explanation for the staffing crunch, he points to the number of expensive homes around Issaquah, saying that many of his younger workers don't really need a job.

   Also, it appears as if housing and rental rates are so high that those who might work for lower wages can't afford to live on the Eastside. And for a $7-an-hour job, it doesn't pay to commute from Skagit County, where homes are more affordable.

   Garbusjuk adds it doesn't help, either, to have a saturation of retail. Couple that with low unemployment and you've got a new recipe for bonuses and other attempts to attract workers.

   According to the state, unemployment rates in the central Puget Sound are at "pretty low" levels. John Haws, a state Employment Securities Department research analyst, said that preliminary November 1998 figures for Washington show a 4.9 percent unemployment rate. King County was at 3 percent and Snohomish County at 3.3 percent.

   The numbers mean that 97 percent of those able to work are doing just that in King County. "When an employer puts out a sign saying 'I need a body,' there's nobody to fill it," Haws said.

   He points to Boeing and Microsoft as key factors on why unemployment is so low in Seattle and Snohomish County. "These two put demands on all sections of industry--the employees have to have cars, houses, and eat," said Haws.

   But he didn't expect unemployment numbers to stay as low as they currently are. With layoffs at Boeing, the rate will creep up in coming months as the so-called trickle-down effect is felt through the region.

   Meanwhile, it's a strange twist to the usual business stories. Bringing in customers isn't the problem--Morrell reports "phenomenal business"--but with unemployment running so low, businesses are having to find new ways to recruit crews to serve customers. This can only be good for those looking for an entry level or second job.

   "We've raised wages twice since we've opened the store," said High of Target, which opened last March. An entry-level position begins at $6.50 an hour, and bumps up a quarter after 30 days, she said. The raises were due to the need for "team" members--Targetspeak for employees--and market studies, High said.

   At Dairy Queen along with the $100 bonus, payable after six weeks on the job, Maloney is offering day help seven-plus dollars to take orders, flip burgers, or fill side orders.

   After running a help wanted ad for an evening cashier without response for two-and-a-half months, a Kirkland car wash was advertising a "signing bonus" for new hires last week. "It's something new we're trying," said owner Sandy, who didn't want to give her last name.

   And Morrell said he is talking to his manager about raising the starting wage or a hiring bonus. Both he and Maloney say they do, or have offered employees small bonuses for bringing in new hires.

   Hard to believe, but not having enough employees could lead to a business going under. That's probably why Maloney has resorted to the drastic step of this bonus.

   He says not having enough help is "a major concern because other fast food stores have had to limit hours they're open because of lack of help."

   In the back of his mind is the story of an Issaquah DQ which had just that problem. The Issaquah Press reported last July that without enough staff, the owner first closed the lobby early, but the business became less profitable and finally went up for sale.

   "The troubles were a direct result of losing employees to other Issaquah businesses offering $6.50 an hour or more," the Press reported.

   Garbusjuk said a Jack in the Box which has since opened in that location is having to deal with the same thing, and the local Denny's isn't able to stay open all hours, either.

   Tackling the issue is a task force of the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, Garbusjuk said. One option being considered to make the town more attractive to prospective employees is to open a central day-care location in town.

   Still, not all local businesses report staffing problems. Managers at the Woodinville McDonald's and the 12-screen cinema claimed to have no problems hiring or staffing.