Northland hospitality industry struggles to fill jobs as they brace for possible 'busiest summer' ever

The hospitality industry is struggling the most to rebuild employee numbers after the pandemic. Between increased unemployment benefits, lack of child care, fear of exposure to COVID-19 and lack of international student workers, employers can't get applicants for jobs they desperately need to fill as tourists come to the area.

Vickie Busker (left) and Jamie Stachnik change a bed in the Isle Royale Suite at Fitger’s Inn on Monday, June 7, 2021. Duluth is experiencing a major labor shortage in the service industry. Fitger's Inn, for example, has about half the housekeeping staff they would like to have for the summer. (Steve Kuchera /

Fitger’s Inn manager John Klemme is having trouble finding housekeepers. Although the Duluth hotel position isn’t exactly in high demand in a normal year, he hasn’t been able to find any applicants to fill the job openings for the tourist season this year as things begin to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are currently about five housekeepers short for what we anticipate to be probably the busiest summer we’ve ever had,” Klemme said.

To try to attract workers, the job’s starting wage is now $15 an hour, an increase of $3.50 per hour. Klemme said in the worst-case scenario, other Fitger’s management and staff would have to step in to help clean rooms, or they would have to change the check-in and check-out times to allow for more time in between guests. However, as of right now, he doesn’t anticipate they will have to resort to that.

“We would like to get to every position in the hotel and mall with the same ownership up to a minimum wage of $15 in the next year — that’s the goal — but housekeeping being the biggest need, that one came first.”


Manager John Klemme stands in the lobby of Fitger’s Inn in Duluth on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Steve Kuchera /

Klemme isn’t alone. Nearly everyone in the hospitality sector in the area is hiring for the busy season ahead. Check out any employment website and you'll find countless positions "urgently hiring." Elena Foshay, Duluth’s director of workforce development, said she gets calls every day from restaurants and hotels looking for help with recruiting.

Lee’s Pizza in Duluth had to change its hours and delivery radius because it only has one cook and one delivery driver. And Shorty’s Pizza & Smoked Meat in Superior announced last week it closed the restaurant for good, citing lack of employees.

Foshay said the manufacturing industry is short-staffed in many entry-level jobs, and health care workers such as certified nursing assistants are in high demand.

One of the major reasons the workforce is not filling the demand of hospitality jobs this summer is the additional $300 per week of unemployment benefits that were extended by the American Rescue Plan. Many minimum wage jobs cannot offer the same amount of income that people on unemployment currently receive. The federal supplemental benefits will end on Sept. 6.

“Everyone likes to blame the extra $300 in unemployment, but that’s not entirely it,” Foshay said. “It certainly is making it easier for folks who are deciding not to look for work, but that’s not the only reason that’s holding people back.”

The hospitality industry was the hardest-hit sector during the pandemic, so many restaurants and hotels are having to start from scratch to rebuild the workforce they were forced to lay off last year.


Fitger’s Inn housekeeper Vickie Busker cleans the Isle Royale Suite on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Steve Kuchera /

In Cook County, many local businesses rely on international student workers to come for the summer. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Boyd said many countries that usually have students come on visas still have travel restrictions in place, and embassies and consulates haven’t had the capacity to process visas.

He said restaurants in the county are hit the hardest by the worker shortage, and several have had to close for a day or two each week to give workers a break. This was also the case last year , when international borders were closed.

“This year it’s probably going to be busier than last year, and last year was excessively busy. Not only do we have fewer workers than normal, we have more visitors than normal,” Boyd said. “A little bit of patience would be helpful and go a long way because people are working as hard as they can to provide food, beverages and other things that visitors need."


  • Soaring lumber prices, material shortages challenge Duluth builders With a two-by-four costing about four times the normal rate, major developers and average customers alike are being forced to reconsider projects amid a pandemic-related building boom.
  • Duluth City Council considers use of federal COVID-19 relief funds, trail development Duluth must weigh how to spend $58.1 million in aid.
  • ‘Our community is in need’: St. Louis County hears grim report on homelessness Amid growing numbers of people experiencing homelessness, there's also a racial disparity and a shortage of resources to deal with it all.
  • Pandemic drives Duluth's rental vacancy rate higher A lack of affordable housing continues to challenge local residents.
  • St. Louis County urges restaurant, bar owners to apply for federal relief grants The county has assigned a team of employees to help small-business owners to apply for funding, which figures to help fill the gap between 2019 receipts and 2020's revenues, hit hard by pandemic closures.

Some people still do not feel safe returning to in-person work due to the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, and some cannot find child care options for the summer.
“In some cases, people’s expectations have changed,” Foshay said. “They’re not interested in doing in-person work; they’d prefer to work from home or they’re looking for a different schedule or a different work environment or a higher wage. I think it’ll take some time for us to see what those changes in worker expectations are and how that’ll play out.”

Other people, like 46-year-old Dave Greene, are waiting for their line of work to come back into demand. Greene does residential remodeling and construction, but he said he’s been out of work since about February of this year because people don’t want to bring people into their homes during the pandemic.

“With the whole virus and everything, it’s next to impossible for people to want to hire you and there’s so many people out of work right now that nobody has money,” he said.


Greene, of Duluth, said he wants to work and may apply for a job at The Home Depot or Menards in a few weeks if he doesn’t find work in his field soon. However, he knows eventually the demand will be back, and he doesn’t want to work some place for a couple of weeks just to quit right away.

Foshay anticipates a large volume of people will begin looking for jobs in August or September, when the unemployment bonuses end and children return to school. She said now is an ideal time to look for a job, because it’s possible that as demand changes, there could soon be more people looking for work than there will be jobs available.

Many employers are offering higher-than-normal wages and hiring bonuses. Employers are also offering more flexible scheduling, including work-from-home opportunities or part-time options.

“If you’re going to look for work, do it now,” Foshay said.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
What To Read Next
Get Local