Earlier this summer, businesses in Pendleton experienced an influx of customers as tourists flocked to the town for the Pendleton Whisky Music Fest, which drew about 12,000 people. While the visitors created a boost in revenue, some businesses were scrambling because they lacked enough employees to handle the rush. Bryce Dole is a reporter for the East Oregonian. Bobbi McGee is a manager of The Marigold Hotel in Pendleton. They join us with details about how the town handled the rush and what businesses expect as Pendleton Round-Up approaches.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today in Pendleton. Umatilla County still has the highest rate of new COVID-19 infections and one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state. At the same time, local business owners say that, like their counterparts all around the country, it’s been hard to hire enough workers to meet current customer demand. That was especially true a few weeks ago during the Pendleton Whiskey Music Fest. But a much bigger event, Round-Up, is on the horizon. For more on the labor shortage and the COVID surge, I’m joined by Bobbi McGee, Manager of the Marigold Hotel in Pendleton and Bryce Dole, who is a reporter for the East Oregonian. Good to have both of you on the show.
Bryce Dole: Thanks for having us.
Bobbi McGee: Thank you.
Miller: Bobbi McGee, first, what was it like for you to work during the Pendleton Whiskey Music Fest weekend?
McGee: Well, it was interesting. It was definitely difficult just being behind and having expectations and not being able to meet them due to the fact that we didn’t have the people to be able to meet them in a timely fashion.
Miller: How many rooms were booked?
Miller: How does that compare to the number of rooms that have been booked over the last couple of months?
McGee: It’s a significant amount higher.
Miller: Had you had 48 rooms booked any time in the last year and a half, any time since the pandemic started?
McGee: No, we didn’t even have that many rooms booked for the HotRod-A-Rama, even.
Miller: The HotRod-A-Rama was a recent event?
McGee: Yes. [July 29 through August 1, 2021]
Miller: So this was sort of a kind of test for an increase, a kind of version of back to normal. How much staff did you have on hand?
McGee: Including myself, we had three people.
Miller: How many people do you need to actually manage 48 rooms?
McGee: In prior years they would have -- like on a day like that, where we would have people checking in, checking out, all within the same day, 48 rooms -- they would have eight people, the manager, and a maintenance person. Because you have to have somebody that’s working on laundry, you have to have somebody actually cleaning the rooms -- you have to have people that are actually doing the rooms because you only have from 11:00 [a.m] to 3 :00 [p.m.] to turn the room over.
McGee: That’s 48 rooms. So it’s kind of difficult in that short amount of time with so [few] people.
Miller: So what did that actually mean for the guest experience?
McGee: With the guest experience, I had to apologize a lot and I gave them discounts for their rooms, the people that had to wait, and I apologized greatly because I mean we just couldn’t work any faster. And, for the most part, they understood. I think we had one person that was angry and left and said they were going to go somewhere else. But there wasn’t really anything that we could do to make it go any faster.
Miller: And do you think there was anywhere that they could have gone where it would have been a very different experience? Or would they have run into some version of this wherever they were going to go?
McGee: From a lot of the guests that I spoke to that day, people that were traveling and things like that, they told me that they were seeing it everywhere across the United States. That people are shorthanded and that they were having to wait after check-in time and that there was difficulties because they didn’t have people on hand. I think that people right now are just taking their time to get back to work. And they don’t realize the stress they’re putting on the economy as a whole, actually.
Miller: You mean the people who are choosing right now to not go back to work, you’re saying that they don’t realize the stress they’re putting on people like you or on .. the rest of the economy?
McGee: .. Or.. no, on the economy itself. Because, if a business continues to fail, because it doesn’t have the employees to make it thrive, what happens to that business? It’s going to close, eventually.
Miller: Hmm.. Oh and you’re saying that..
McGee: .. I mean, it can’t do anything other than that.
Miller: Hmm. Bryce Dole, you actually talked to Bobbi McGee and other employers or managers in the Pendleton area recently for a story, which is why we wanted to have you on. What else did you hear from people, specifically about Whiskey Fest and then we can expand it more broadly. What did you hear from people?
Bryce Dole: Whiskey Fest is an essential event for this community and has been for a few years now. Like the Umatilla County Fair and the widely known Pendleton Round-Up, the one that everyone knows about. These are essential for local economies. They’re essential for business owners like Bobbi. So after the event, we at the paper kind of decided [that] we should call around to local businesses to ask them, “What was this weekend like? What did this mean for your business?” After a year where these events obviously didn’t happen, when they were all cancelled. And we were surprised by what people said, people like Bobbi.. I didn’t ask Bobbi what this was like, being short on workers. She brought it up to me. That was consistent among a variety of restaurant owners throughout town saying, “This was really important for our business, but we spent the whole weekend scrambling, trying to capitalize on this event. But, we really weren’t able to, maybe to the fullest extent.” Now granted, that’s not every business around town, but a lot had some struggles and are now trying to learn from this event, looking towards Round-Up, which is in all likelihood going to be, maybe at least, twice as large.
Miller: Hmm, and we can talk about that in just a couple minutes. Bryce, as you go around town, do you see “help wanted” signs on windows?
Miller: What did you hear from employers about the challenges they’re facing right now trying to hire people, either hire people back who used to work there, or hire new folks?
Dole: I think one important part, the one thing that a lot of folks are saying right now is they don’t want to go back to work because they don’t want to get sick. And if they can stay home and get unemployment, then they’re going to do that. A lot of folks who work in the service industry, they work really hard, work long hours. Especially on a weekend like Whiskey Fest; those are long and tough hours. It’s been challenging for business owners to try and entice those workers back to work. Some are promising better pay for employees. Some are increasing their own prices so that they can get by. I think there are several restaurants along Main Street here in Pendleton -- and I know this is consistent in places like Hermiston where they have had to work maybe three days a week, change their hours -- so a lot of adjustments going on. And we’ll see what happens going towards Round-Up, if some of these businesses can kind of pull things together to really capitalize on that event, which brings in millions of dollars to the local economy.
Miller: Bobbi McGee, you mentioned that you had about a third of the staffing for the Music Fest weekend that you would have needed. What kinds of conversations have you had with former employees or prospective new employees about coming back to work?
McGee: I have actually hired and trained a total of four new people that I’m alternating to make sure I’m prepared for the Pendleton Round-Up. I have in fact, though, had people that come to work one day and then they will literally tell me, “I make more money staying home, why would I go to work?”
Miller: And that’s after taking the job. I mean that’s actually..
McGee: [inaudible] that’s after taking the job.
Miller: .. because we’ve heard that, “I make more money not working.” We’ve heard that a lot in the last couple of months. Both from employers who are frustrated with that and we’ve heard that from some prospective employees. I guess I’m trying to understand why someone would go to work, would take the job, and then after one day, then make that statement.
McGee: I’m not sure, but I know it’s happened more than once and we’ve actually almost tripled the amount that we pay. Just trying to get people to come to work.
Miller: You’ve tripled people’s salaries?
Miller: And that still hasn’t been enough. Although you did say that you were able to hire four people..
McGee: Yeah, I have hired four people, but the other people that I tried before this group, they were interested for a day or two. One showed up for like a week and then dropped off the face of the Earth and showed up two weeks later. Like, “Okay, I’m ready to come to work.” I don’t understand.
Miller: Huh.. What was the pay at first and then what is it after you tripled it?
McGee: The pay at first was, for two every two rooms, you got paid for an hour’s pay which would be like.. I think.. I’m not sure what it was before, but now we’re paying $20 a room. And that is extremely rare that a hotel does that. And I still have difficulty..
Miller: And they could maybe do two rooms in an hour so that would be $40 an hour.
Miller: Does that actually pencil out for your hotel? I mean I guess I’m flabbergasted by any business tripling anyone’s wages. We’ve always heard that wages are one of the biggest if not the biggest cost that a business has. How can you triple the amount you’re paying workers?
McGee: The thing is, with this business, that if we didn’t pick up where we were slacking off -- which we couldn’t help because we didn’t have the people -- we were going to end up having to close or something. If you keep getting bad reviews or you keep getting bad customer events happening, the only thing that can happen is that you’ll no longer be a place where customers can come. So, we had to [inaudible] ...
Miller: And the bad reviews saying like, “Hey, my bathroom wasn’t cleaned.” or ..
Miller: .. or “I didn’t have towels.” or whatever. The kinds of things that you need people on top of to take care of.
McGee: Exactly. Even the smallest thing that is an inconvenience, like your remote not being on the TV. Any small inconvenience like that can ruin a customer’s outlook. And one person can ruin 15 people’s outlook, just by word of mouth. So, we had to do something.
Miller: But, as Bryce Dole mentioned, this is not just a question of labor economics. It’s also a question of public health.
Miller: As I’m sure you know, Umatilla County has the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the state, more than three times the state average. In total, almost 10,000 county residents have gotten COVID and 94 people have died. I have to assume that that is on prospective employees’ minds as well. Is that something that people are saying to you, a reason why they don’t want to work now?
McGee: In all actuality, I have not heard that from one person honestly. They have not voiced that as being one of the concerns or one of the reasons why. I did have one person say that they thought that they had COVID one time just because they wanted to get out of work and they had a swollen foot or something. It was horrible. But I’ve not heard anybody actually sincerely voice the fact that they’re concerned about their health, as far as catching COVID.
Miller: Bryce, the state has said that at least 64 cases of COVID have been tied to the Whiskey Fest and those now have gone back to a number of different counties in Oregon and Washington. The governor has said, when asked specifically about Round-Up, she’s not interested in canceling any specific events. And local officials, as you and others have reported, have said that there’s no way that they are going to be the ones to kill this huge, and hugely important, cash cow. But is there a point that people locally are talking about where they think the state would come in and shut the Round-Up down?
Dole: That is the golden question right now. And it’s a question we are asking pretty much weekly right now. Here’s the thing. If you’re a Pendleton Round-Up fan, this recent investigation into these more than 60 cases.. it’s probably higher than that by now. And granted, that’s also more than likely an undercount, at least so far as what county health officials and state health officials have told me so far. This is not good news, looking forward, towards Round-Up. The state noted that an outbreak from an outdoor music festival like this hasn’t happened yet. This is new ground and granted the concert didn’t appear to break any rules of any kind. I mean, it had been 10 days, I think 10 or 11 days, since the state had lifted virtually all pandemic restrictions. So, it was all systems go for this event to bring in more than 12,000 people. I spent that concert walking around and talking to people, “Hey, how does it feel to be back at a live music event?” They were thrilled, of course. But the question immediately was, are we going to see an outbreak from this? And that’s exactly what happened. So Pendleton Round-Up, at least twice as large. Granted, it’s a long ways away, more than a month away. But at this point, there’s no indication from the state or the county that anyone is going to step in to stop it from happening. And for business owners, that’s huge, right? They want this event to happen. This is huge for the local economy. From a public health standpoint, it’s fairly concerning.
Miller: Well about that, Bobbi McGee, we got a comment from Jennifer Sordyl on our Facebook page who wrote, “They should just cancel Round-Up this year. The pandemic has come back with a vengeance and too many of their customers are in the anti vaccine crowd.” What’s your reaction to that?
McGee: I have actually seen a lot of the guests that have reservations for this year, they have already started to call to see if they can also reserve next year. So we’re completely booked for next year, too. And I’m thinking that is because they’re going on the fact that it’s possibly not going to happen. Which would not be good financially, but as far as people’s health, that’s what’s most concerning. I mean, people have to be alive and well to be able to do things like go to a Pendleton Round-Up.
Miller: What are you planning to do, based on your experience from the Whiskey Music Fest? Assuming that Round-Up does go ahead, what’s your, I don’t know, operations plan for how to have a successful time for an event that’s twice as large?
McGee: Well I now have the staff that I would need and I have already started ordering -- and almost have completed ordering -- extra supplies for each of the rooms. So I would have all the sets made up for the rooms as far as their towels, sheets and everything like that goes, already extra. And I’ve already started stocking up on the necessities like conditioner, shampoo, things like that. So I’m more prepared. During Whiskey Fest, I had just taken over and I was completely new. [Laughs] So, it was kind of a little bit difficult for me, but I tried my best. I’m a little bit more prepared now, though.
Miller: Bryce Dole, before Round-Up, there’s another big event, the Umatilla County Fair, which is coming up. What is that looking like right now?
Dole: It’s looking like it’s going to happen. It’s all systems go right now. The fair is another one of those staple events for this county. It’s huge, not only economically, but it really holds a place in a lot of locals’ hearts, right? A lot of local farmers and students looking to get into agriculture, the fair is huge for them. And it’s just something that people have been looking forward to for a really long time. Now, in the back of everyone’s minds, at least for a lot of health officials that we’ve been reporting about... Like you said, Umatilla County is currently experiencing one of the largest, if not the largest COVID surge in Oregon. There’s a hospital here in Pendleton that has seen cases and hospitalizations skyrocket. I was on the phone with the hospital spokesperson this morning who told me that the wait for the emergency room is hours long. And they are urging people to go to urgent care and only come to the emergency room if it’s really serious. So there’s some question marks, looking towards this event, whether it’s a smart idea or not. But again, nobody from the county is going to step in, so far as we’ve heard. No one has come out publicly and said this shouldn’t happen. And a lot of the reason for that is because county officials are worried about that backlash that they would face. It’s a tough thing, tough thing for folks to navigate. So we’re watching closely, I suppose, to see what happens.
Miller: Bryce Dole and Bobbi McGee, thanks very much for joining us.
Dole: Thank you, Dave.
McGee: Thank you.
Miller: Bryce Dole is a Reporter for the East Oregonian. Bobbi McGee is the Manager of the Marigold Hotel in Pendleton.
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