ST. CLOUD -- Unfilled job openings is the number one issue facing businesses in the St. Cloud area according to St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce President Teresa Bohnen. She says finding workers was already a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic, however, since last year the problem has only gotten worse.

We've got this big gap in the entry-level employees and more unskilled employees.  We just don't have enough people to do the work, and you're seeing a lot of things like reduced hours.

Bohnen says businesses are seeing more employees choosing to retire early. But, she believes the biggest reason for fewer people applying for jobs is the current unemployment benefits program.

We're in Minnesota, we're going into the summertime, and if you're on unemployment you are getting an extra $300 a week ticker to your unemployment.  Your motivation to go out and get re-employed is probably pretty low right now.

Bohnen says she is concerned that the eligibility criteria for unemployment benefits at the state level with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development are not being adhered to.

DEED says Minnesota's labor force participation rate right now is just 67.8 percent, down from 70.2 percent in February of last year before the pandemic.

The Labor Department said Thursday that unemployment applications declined by 39,000 from a revised 586,000 a week earlier. Weekly jobless claims are down sharply from a peak of 900,000 in early January. But they're still far above the roughly 250,000 level that prevailed before the viral outbreak ripped through the economy in March of last year.

She says one thing that would help is getting the DEED Workforce Center open again, which has remained closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Those clients are who are filling the roles of the jobs that we can't get filled. So, it all is playing together and wee need to figure out how to get that center opened up.

Bohnen says as a temporary solution they are helping job seekers fill out applications at the St. Cloud Public Library.

In the meantime, she says local businesses are cutting hours or limited areas of their businesses that are open due to a lack of staffing.

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