Labor Pains

Unemployment dip; hospital works to retain employees

The Covid pandemic underscored how vitally important health care workers are to society. In a small community, their value is magnified. So is their absence when health care jobs go unfilled. Fortunately for residents of the Madison Valley, the Madison Valley Medical Center (MVMC) deploys innovative strategies to hire and retain good medical professionals.

The MVMC not only provides essential services, but is a major employer in the county, with approximately 130 employees (including full-time, part-time and per diem employees). In a tight labor market, many businesses have had to modify their operations. But hospitals can’t close two days a week. How does MVMC hire and retain good medical professionals at a time when county unemployment has dropped to 2.9%?

Bonnie O’Neill is MVMC’s human resources director. When she needs to hire, she relies on standard advertising platforms such as, craigslist and The Madisonian, but doesn’t offer sign-on bonusses.

“We have a low turn-over,” O’Neill said. “We’re known as a good place to work, thanks to our leadership, many of whom have been here for a long time.” O’Neill noted that she posted an ad last week for five positions; two of them have already been filled.

Most professional jobs at MVMC require certification, but O’Neill cites housing as the major challenge to hiring new people.

“We’ve had an instance where we were about to fill a position, then the candidate visits and determines it’s not affordable to live here,” she said. To mitigate the high costs of the Ennis-area housing market, MVMC makes some housing available to employees who have long commutes during those days when they are working back-toback shifts.

Back-to-school challenges some employers

Back in June, Carrie Gibson, who owns a popular Sheridan eatery with her husband Cameron, was worried about finding help once the new school year began. She had relied on several high school-age workers to help during Bread Zep’s busy summer season.

“We’re doing great now,” Cameron Gibson reported. “We have an excellent crew and have had some new applicants.”

Until more hires are made, Bread Zep will continue to be open Tuesday through Saturday, from 2 to 8 p.m.

While some businesses in Virginia City and Nevada City are open year-round, most are open only from Memorial Day until shortly after Labor Day. Many of the historic buildings aren’t winterized, and the water supply is shut off during the winter months. Employers only need to keep staff on board through the summer season. Nevertheless, a reliable labor force is of critical importance during the tourist months, and small business owners have taken different approaches to ensuring stability. Patti Hamstra has managed the historic Fairfield Inn (circa 1863) with her husband Chuck for 10 years.

“For the last three years, we’ve been lucky to have three retirees from Sheridan who help out at the front desk,” she said. The challenge has been with filling the housekeeping jobs once school starts, as many of the housekeeping crew are of school age. “Chuck and I fill in, cleaning and making the beds,” she said. “Once school starts, it’s not as busy except on weekends.”

Just down the road in Nevada City, Krista Sentman is starting to wind down her first year as the owner of the Star Restaurant.

The restaurant was bustling Friday at lunchtime.

“No staffing problems here,” she said, while behind the counter Gabby Shock filled orders.

“Gabby is a great worker,” Sentman complimented the daughter of a friend from Oregon.

Sentman said she doesn’t advertise job openings, relying instead on local residents to fill jobs at the Star Restaurant. Many of her employees are in school. The restaurant has been serving breakfast and lunch Thursdays through Sundays, and offering dinner and live music Friday and Saturday nights. The restaurant will close September 19 until next Memorial Day.

“Next year we hope to be open seven days a week,” Sentman said.

The Star Bakery next door was close to running out of the fresh pastries baked daily by owner Jessica Allen. When asked how she is navigating the tight labor market, Allen replied, “It’s easy. I do all the work myself.”

She did have an intern this summer, a culinary arts student, and says she has benefitted from contributions made by interns during past summers.

“They have a chance to run the bakery, learning both the business and the baking sides of the bakery,” Allen said.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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