We’ve all read about how the October fires have impacted local businesses, at least as relates to those damaged or destroyed. But how have the fires impacted those local businesses that are still standing? How are our employers and employees faring?

What we and other recruiting agencies have seen to date is that the employees most closely affected (those who lost homes and/or jobs) aren’t pounding the pavement for work yet. We all expected a bigger influx of job seekers than we’ve seen. That may have to do with the trauma. People just aren’t ready to resume “normal” life. Or it may be that many are depending upon the disability unemployment assistance (DUA) available to them.

When President Trump declared ours a major disaster, he enabled employees who were unable to work due to the fires to apply, and the benefit is available for up to 26 weeks. If they take the full amount of time allotted to them, we won’t see an influx of applicants until the beginning of April.

One huge concern is that many people will leave the area because there’s not enough housing. It is extremely costly to live here. Rebuilding will take years and housing may still remain too expensive. Philip Martin, labor economist at University of California, Davis, said it succinctly, “It was hard to get workers before the fires, because the living costs in Sonoma and Napa are so much higher than elsewhere. Most people would say it is even going to get even harder to find workers after the fires.”

It costs $1,400 for a two-bedroom unit in Sonoma County and $1,500 for the equivalent in Napa County. That means a worker earning $15 an hour for 160 hours a month pays more than half of the $2,400 monthly earnings in rent.

Given our current low unemployment rate, there are still a ton of job vacancies in the area. We need to solve this housing crisis to help fill those jobs. It won’t happen overnight, but the time to start a serious dialogue is now and we, as employers, can be advocates for change. Some companies are using their own websites to highlight the need and elevate awareness around the topic. Perhaps this is a way for you to get skin in the game.

If you’re not already involved with your local chamber of commerce, reach out. Local Rotary clubs made up of business owners are starting to tackle this issue too. If you’re not sure of the nearby clubs, you can find them here.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council have teamed up on the issue of housing and are looking closely at several ways to address the issue. If you have ideas, reach out to your supervisor here.

I’ve talked about this before, but one thing you can put into place immediately is a discussion with your employees about their housing situation. Perhaps hold a brown bag meeting on the topic. Encourage them to let you know if housing is a severe issue before suddenly moving away. Think about retention. Since we know it’s more difficult to attract talent, work to keep your best people in-house. Let them know you’re on their side in every way.

If staff must come in from outside areas, is there a way you can help defray the costs of their commute? Perhaps subsidize tolls, trains, bus fees, gas and car repair costs? When possible, allow flexible working hours so employees can avoid the most congested commute times and/or work from home part of the time.

Smartt Principles

Smartt Principles (nbbj.news/SmarttPrinciples) is a column by Nicole Smartt, an author as well as co-owner and vice president of Star Staffing, based in Petaluma.

More business coverage of the North Bay fires recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires

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