While low unemployment rates are considered a positive economic indicator, seasonal businesses in the Holland area are feeling pressure when it comes to hiring and retaining employees.

Some days this summer Nelis’ Dutch Village was so short on staff that one ride operator ran two rides, causing increased wait times for customers.

That’s not due to cutbacks at the park. It’s the result of low unemployment squeezing the business.

While low unemployment rates are considered a positive economic indicator, seasonal businesses in the Holland area are feeling pressure when it comes to hiring and retaining employees.

Unemployment sat at 3.3 percent in Ottawa County in June, and at 3.6 percent in Allegan County. Both were in the top 10 among the state’s 83 counties. Statewide unemployment was 4.6 percent.

As a tourism area with four seasons, West Michigan has many businesses that require more employees during the summer than any other time of year.

Dutch Village ramps up from 15 to 90 employees in the summer. It brings in most of its money during seven weeks in the summer, said owner Joe Nelis.

What used to be spring hiring and training turned into constant hiring this summer, he said.

“This year has been a challenge like no other,” Nelis said. “Yesterday, I interviewed and hired a guy. He started at 10 a.m. today, and by 11:15 he had already walked off the job.”

When there aren’t enough people on staff to get through the next day, hiring options are limited, he said.

“It’s really just mindblowing for us,” Nelis said.

Oftentimes, people with experience and good work ethic are snatched up by other companies after a short stint at Dutch Village, he said.

“We rely a lot on returners who don’t need full time, year round incomes,” Nelis said. That means seniors, and high school and college students.

“We have to have flexibility and have a fun atmosphere (for the seniors),” he said. “They’re here because they want to be here. So we have to work that to maintain that. On the other end of the spectrum, we’re introducing 14-year-olds to their first job, and we want them to come back season after season.”

Michael Rodriguez is one of those faithful returners. He started during his freshman year of high school, and is now in his sixth season.

Jonniah Haveman started at Dutch Village about a month ago.

“I like helping people and watching them have a good time,” she said.

Many seasonal businesses are looking for high school and college students and teachers to fill out their staff, but that can come with its own set of problems. Colleges start in late August, and some high schools now begin before Labor Day as well — that’s the biggest problem for Lucy’s Little Kitchen in Saugatuck.

“It isn’t just Lucy’s, it’s everywhere,” said co-owner Matt Balmer. “It’s probably the worst it’s ever been.”

Lucy’s Little Kitchen, 505 Water St. in Saugatuck, closes Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

“Every restaurant I’ve talked to, it’s been the same story,” Balmer said in regard to the challenge of finding good help. “It’s been a nightmare.”

Balmer also co-owns Everyday People Cafe, 11 Center St. in Douglas, which has a staff of about 50-60 and is open seven days a week.

Both restaurants have been low on staff all summer, even after increasing wages, Balmer said.

Wild Dog Grille in Douglas has taken somewhat of a unique approach, with a Craiglist ad offering up to a $200 signing bonus for kitchen staff and dishwashers, with wages from $10-15.

Petter Wine Gallery, 161 N. Blue Star Highway in Douglas, has had a different experience.

The gallery has five staff members who have all stayed on through the summer, said Juli Petter, owner.

“We’ve been lucky,” she said. “We have a great crew here. We’re in good shape. A lot of my employees have winter jobs, they’re teachers or students. That has worked well for us.”

However, she’s noticed the struggle restaurants in the area are going through.

“It’s somewhat of an epidemic,” she said. She’s noticed that several restaurants have reduced hours.

Another seasonal attraction in Holland is also feeling the pressure of low unemployment.

At Windmill Island Garden, pretty much everyone who applies and is qualified is hired due to a reduction in applicants, said Matt Helmus, development manager. And once they’re hired it’s not guaranteed they’ll stick around.

“Lots of employees leave for a full-time, year-round — I don’t blame them at all,” he said.

The park has 50-60 staff during the summer.

“With the unemployment so low, it’s easy to get a job that would previously have taken a few years of experience,” Helmus said. “Being entry level, we’re getting the biggest squeeze because everyone moves up a rung, leaving the bottom kind of empty.”

— Follow this reporter on Twitter @SentinelJustine or @BizHolland.