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Hotels and restaurants are photographed in Bozeman on Tuesday.

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The leisure industry was the hardest hit by the pandemic in Montana, and while there has been improvement over the past year-and-a-half, workers are hard to come by while demand from locals and tourists continues to skyrocket.

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry released its annual Labor Day report last week, providing insight into the state of Montana’s economic rebound from the pandemic. The leisure industry, which encompasses hotels, restaurants, resorts and much more, suffered more job and revenue loss than any other in the state. And in Gallatin County, that industry employed 19% of the working population.

The leisure industry is one of the top three employment sectors in the state, with only health care and trade above it. Around 45% — or about 30,000 — of the sector’s jobs were lost statewide. Gallatin County accounted for nearly 17% — or about 5,000 — of jobs lost in the leisure industry from February to April of 2020.

Montana Department of Labor and Industry spokesperson Jessica Nelson said in an email that by the fall of 2020, there were improvements in the sector. Many of the jobs within the leisure industry are low-wage, seasonal positions, but by March of this year, the sector was just 650 jobs short from the pre-pandemic peak in February 2020.

Between April and June of last year, businesses in the leisure industry were struggling, said CEO of the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce Daryl Schliem.

“We saw a slowdown for about six weeks, and then as people got comfortable with flying and wearing a mask and social distancing, we started to see that pick back up again,” Schliem said.

Hotels and restaurants that were able to adapt were able to survive, Schliem said. For example, hotels switched from daily to weekly cleaning, and restaurants created takeout options to cater to rules preventing limited in-person dining.

More than half a dozen businesses, including hotels, restaurants and guiding services, in the Bozeman area did not responded to request for comment.

Gov. Greg Gianforte lifting COVID-19 restrictions, which includes capacity limits on businesses, in January and coronavirus vaccine rollouts at roughly the same time increased demand for workers across the leisure industry and other sectors, Nelson said.

“When consumer demand increased this spring and summer after vaccines became available and consumers started returning to normal travel and in-person dining, businesses reported difficulty finding workers due to the declines in the labor force experienced over the last year,” Nelson said.

But the shortage of workers is not just felt in the leisure industry.

“Every industry in Gallatin County, right now, has a shortfall of workers to fill their needs and to expand on it,” Schliem said.

Wages did increase for the low-wage workforce, Nelson said. Payroll wages, which include hourly and salaried pay, increased by 7.9% in Montana, which is double the average annual rate increase from 2015 to 2019, according to the report.

And the leisure industry has been hammered by increased tourism this year. This August was the busiest on record for Yellowstone National Park, with just over 921,800 recreation visits last month.

Tourism and the leisure industry are tied together, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport Director Brian Sprenger said. Tourists coming into the area are vital for restaurants, shops and hotels, and in turn, more people coming to Bozeman and Gallatin County means more services for people that live here.

“And that’s the chicken and the egg thing,” Sprenger said. “If you didn’t have tourism, we would have a whole lot less desirable of a place to be, even though it does create challenges as well.”

The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport had about 277,000 passengers in July, and roughly 254,000 in August. Both months had about a 45% increase in passengers traveling to and from Bozeman compared to the same timeframe in 2019.

Tourism is the main economic driver in Big Sky, which is dotted with numerous resorts and hotels. Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Resort did not respond to request for comment.

Increasing COVID-19 cases could hamper the progress made over the past year-and-a-half, Nelson said. On the national level, consumer demand has been waning due to increased active cases, but state-level data does not support the national trend, Nelson said.

She said the biggest concern statewide continues to be the supply of workers, adding that “increased case counts will likely increase employee absences, making scheduling more difficult for employers.”

“And it may also slow the improvement in the worker supply that we saw this summer,” she said.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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