In a pre-COVID world, going out to eat was a treat – but today it has become a particularly special occasion. In my hometown of Jamestown, you will be hard pressed to find a place to eat dinner on a Sunday afternoon or evening. Most restaurants have closed their doors at least one or two days a week because of difficulties in finding staff. I’ve asked them what the challenges are, and the answers are always the same — not enough people to fill the jobs. As the COVID-19 Omicron variant quickly spread through rural areas already combatting workforce shortages, local economies are struggling to maintain normalcy and keep the town running. Some city staff say they are prepared to cover shifts for other essential services that lack workers, such as water maintenance and sanitation, just to keep the city running. In these difficult times, it is the fellowship and community of the American people keeping rural areas from sinking.
But these modest actions are not enough to counter long term economic and demographic trends that have led to a decline in the rural population and workforce far before COVID-19. The National Council of Farmer Cooperative survey found that 77 percent of responding co-ops had issues retaining a skilled workforce during the pandemic. In North Dakota, a major milk distributor went out of business due to a lack of drivers, putting rural customers and more than 50 school districts at risk of losing milk deliveries. These shortages in the workforce are not only affecting local economies but are rippling through the national supply chain. As rural communities are unable to fill open positions in production, transportation, and warehousing, the American supply chain continues to falter. For example, Right Choice Electric, a staple in Grand Forks, was not able to get electrical panel covers for four months, resulting in project delays for this whole winter season. These shortages directly impact businesses, as they are unable to meet consumer demands. We all know example after example like this.
Like any disease, COVID-19 does not discriminate, but the effects of the virus have proven to be disproportionately costly for rural communities. As the United States works to revitalize pre-COVID life and restore the economy, our leaders must work to address the inequity of hardships that COVID-19 has brought upon small towns and workforces by investing in our workforce and offering support to working families. North Dakota leaders and elected officials across America must set the foundation for higher wages for workers, better childcare and housing benefits, and renewed investment in the rural communities that are the backbone of the American economy. Let’s emerge from this pandemic with lessons learned that help workers, grow business and protect families.