Episode 4: Immigration Employment Shortage with Melissa Langone
Transcript: Ray Lahoud/Melissa Langone
Welcome to Norris Speaks- Immigration Matters, a limited podcast series where we delve into the economic, employment, and cultural realities of immigration in the Lehigh Valley and Greater Pennsylvania. I am your host, Ray Lahoud, member and chair of the immigration group at Norris McLaughlin. On this episode, I’m joined by Melissa Langone, Director of Human Resources at Woodloch Pine Resort in Pike County, Pennsylvania, and also Pike County’s largest employer. Melissa leads a massive workforce and workforce recruitment efforts, pretty much second to none, I would say, in the eastern part of Pennsylvania. And she really has led, you know, throughout the region, in terms of recruitment, and leads with the ability to weather the storm including what we just saw here recently, and what we’re seeing now with the COVID-19 employment shortage; and what Melissa has been dealing with even years before COVID-19 in terms of employment shortages, and the ability to get employees and secure, qualified workforce in your Pennsylvania company. So, I really want to welcome Melissa to our podcast here. And Melissa, let’s talk a little bit about Pennsylvania, Woodloch, you, what is happening right now, Jersey Shore. So, but first of all, you’re the director of HR at Woodloch, so — Woodloch. I’ve stayed there. Awesome place. Awesome spa, awesome resort. Great, great place. The food is excellent, I’m telling you. But you employ in your workforce – about how much, would you say?
So, typically, on a good year? Um, we employ about 1600 employees. But since COVID, we can’t get past 1100, so we are severely short-staffed. We have …
Are you still at 1600, would you say, but you could only get 1100?
Yeah, currently. So, during our peak season, which is usually from like May to November, we usually would have around 1600 employees actively working, because our summers are our big times. And especially during those holidays, peak times, and then the non-peak seasons, because we are open year-round, we would generally have between 1200 to 1300, 1400 employees. But since COVID, we have around 1100, and we are severely short-staffed.
So, you’re talking a difference between your peak and your lower time in the area anywhere between 200 and 400 to 500 employees, how do you operate and what do you do? Like, how are you, how are you coping?
So, you know, a lot of employees are working a lot of hours, we are working in multiple departments. We all pitch in; we have several different properties. You know, we have the resort, which is a family owned and operated resort. It’s been in business since 1958 and owned by the same owners, …
Tell us about the resort and pines and stuff like that too.
Yeah. It’s an incredible place. It really stands out, yeah, I love it.
Yeah we have Woodloch Pines resort, which is the family resort. It is constantly busy running. Kids, you know, we have the scavenger hunt, lots of activities going; then we have the golf course, Woodloch Springs. Family can stay there as well. There are houses, year-round houses, and then we have rental houses, the golf course. Then we have the lodge at Woodloch, which is our destination spa. It’s adults only. We have a little over 44 rooms, very prestigious spa, lovely, lovely property, award-winning spa. And then we have the market at Woodloch, which is our upscale convenience gas station. So, we have lots of properties, and all owned by the same family.
Amazing family …
… here, and they’ve built a business. They’ve started it. They’re using land. They’re not building a massive development, let’s say, so they’re preserving space. And in terms of visitors, I mean, they’re doing great in terms of what they do. You are bringing people in from New York, Jersey, all over.
Yes, yes, all over. I mean, we have people coming from, you know, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, you know, even from the west coast, even from out of the country, they would come as well. You know, and we, you know, you and I have worked together with our internationals. We opened up to the shortage, started back before I even started. I’ve been here for 17, 16, 17 years. And when I started, we were working with internationals on the J-1 program, which are the students, and then the H2B’s which are, you know, the adult workers coming up for the visa.
So, 17 years. So, COVID-19. So, while it made – would you agree with me here, or please feel free to disagree. COVID-19. I would just say it made a problem known or more extreme, but it was a problem that’s been going on more than 17, 18 years, where you cannot find skilled or unskilled laborers, workers, servers in the United States. You know, even, because I know you do a ton of recruiting, all over, all over the web, newspapers, everywhere.
I mean, when I first started. We would have a ton of applications. And that was when we did paper applications. I would have a huge stack on my desk. I couldn’t keep up with them, but now we’re lucky if we get an application a day in or every few days, it’s, you know, and we’re doing any type of recruiting that we can. We were going before COVID hit. We were going to car shows. We were going to craft fairs. We were going to the farmer’s market. You know, we were just trying to think outside of the box and just trying to do something different and say, hey, you know, you’re coming here for fun, but do you want to work? You know …
Your wages are, I mean, you take care of your employees, you have benefits. They’re long term, it’s not seasonal, but I mean you have full-time annual work that’s available for people. I guess we don’t have the answer to.
I don’t know, because we’ve, we’ve increased our starting pay. We’ve increased our employees that have been here. We have employees that have been here, you know, generally 80% of our staff are here for 10 plus years. You know, we have multiple staff that are here for over 40 years. So, they’ve been in with us since they’ve opened their doors practically, but just trying to, retaining staff is becoming a problem. You know, it’s a very competitive world, but we don’t know what else to do because we are competing with other employers around the area. But I mean, you know, we have a lot of benefits. We have a lot of perks. We’re a very caring family, you know, it’s not just a job. We really care about our staff, you know, during the pandemic, you know, I worked during it to make sure that everyone got their unemployment.
I remember, I mean, your HR team was working the rooms. It’s really a team environment, which kind of take us in there where, you know, let’s say we’ve met. And you know, this whole idea of a global role has kind of come to fruition, and we have an excess “capacity” of available jobs compared to those in the United States who are ready, willing, and able to take on employment for whatever reason. So that takes us into the issue, the question, of immigration. And I truly believe in a lawful immigration system, you need comprehensive immigration reform and the like that allows for kind of a mix of merits-based system that includes all types of jobs and positions. You know, merit is more than what people would typically define in today’s world or yesterday’s world as a degree from a university or the like, you know, now, and for a long time, merit has been in skilled and unskilled, but truly the unskilled is the work that we need, the skill that we need. So, the willingness to do that, tell me about, you know, in terms of what your thoughts are on just the process as to how it is.
You know, as well, it’s a difficult process. It’s a long process. You know, we have workers that have been coming here for 16 years, year after year, on the H2B, and they love coming to Woodloch. It’s just, from start to finish, it’s like the lottery; you’re taking a gamble, you know? You’re putting all this hard work and effort into the hands of the Department of Labor, hoping that you get chosen and you’re going into group A, and you’re going to get all your workers and then you do everything right. And then,
H2B, 66,000 visas that are available a year,
The entire country for Prairie workers for all types of work in the United States. And it’s 66,000 available visas and hundreds of thousands of applicants year after year. So, after everybody makes this massive submission, spends a considerable amount of money, you know, to make the submission, then they just put you into a big lottery and randomly pick you, so. …
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. It’s like, as soon as I get the paperwork and information, I’m like, okay, I’m going to get this in because I want to be at the top of the list, and then you do everything right. And then it’s like, you didn’t meet the cap and then you’re struggling with, what am I going to do? And that’s when, you know, we started to do the extension. So, we’ve connected with a lot of winter employers, and this year, you know, we didn’t get our workers until after 4th of July, which was a huge hit on us because this year was the year. Everyone wanted to travel. We’re ready. COVID was at, it was still around, but it wasn’t as bad as it is then and now, but we couldn’t make our guests feel like Woodloch, you know, because we didn’t have enough staff, but we, we did our best, you know, like we always do,
You know, Pike County lost visitors too, northeast Pennsylvania there.
Right. We were short-staffed, but we’ve made sure that our guests didn’t know that, and they honestly felt it, our staff, they’re all wonderful. And this year we made a connection with a couple of winter employers that have H2B’s, so we sent all of our workers to mainly Vermont, and we’re going to continue that connection and do extension so that we’re guaranteed to get all of our workers back and maybe hire some of their winter workers to come back, you know,
So how do you deal with the other 300 to 400 is the other question?
Right, if we had the housing, we would take as many as we can house, you know, we’re limited with our housing.
And people from abroad. I mean, you just want workers.
Yeah. We want local workers. We’ll take all the local workers that want to work, but it’s a difficult task and it’s difficult to find individuals that are ready to work.
And to me, as I look at the employment area, unemployment, shortages, it’s always been an issue. It’s an issue for a long time since I’ve been practicing immigration law. Typical costs from so many different lawyers, how can I get legal, lawful employees in the United States? I don’t want to violate laws. Nobody wants to do that. Other people are maybe doing that. You want to do this. The right way. and the process is incredibly difficult. And oftentimes I’m very upfront with them in terms of doing that, it’s difficult, which takes me to my point – of let’s get to a comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes that we need foreign talent. Of all Skill types, all skill levels, and the like. That are willing to come here on a temporary basis, pay their taxes, not, you know, go on any type of government assistance or since it’s specific specifically like leave the United States legally returned the next year. And this is for all types of positions from engineers to developers to landscaping areas, to restaurant fields, to chefs, executives, restaurant managers that are of temporary need of all types of workers. And it’s, it’s an issue that’s been long in the HR field, that’s been there but has come to the forefront. Thankfully now, as I’d say, unfortunately, COVID has caused a lot of debts and the like. But at least it’s bringing a lot of issues like this, the employment shortage problem, to the forefront like this. But you know there’s a medical shortage, the nursing shortage should be to the forefront. It’s a question of what our government does now to do it.
We’re getting off topic right now, but I want to take the political stand at it because I do have a lot of respect for our members of Congress that serve in this area in Pennsylvania, in our senators and the like because, you know, their hands are tied by what’s happening there, and then they could do as much as they can.
Yeah. I mean, you know, when COVID hit, we were very honest and open with our staff. You know, we had a meeting when we had to close our doors and inform them of what’s happening. You know, we were very…
You closed because of the,
because of the mandate. We were considered non-essential. So we had to close our doors back in March.
What would happen if you had been able to stay open.
Only certain departments stayed open, you know, just to keep running. And obviously my department had to, because of all the unemployment claims, you know, accounting, we still had to stay open. So there were a few that still had to.
The social distancing during COVID and the like and you think of a resort such as yours where it’s all hotels, nobody’s really around each other. It’s a lot of very separated people and the like. Pretty much necessary. Social distancing. Would you say that, could you have operated during that time frame without the mandate and potentially put the cause you already had measures in effect, right now you put measures in to protect people obviously. But using today’s measures that you have, could you have operated at a smaller scale and could have been beneficial to potentially limit the spread, within certain areas by distancing people?
Yeah, I mean, I believe we did a great job, our team, our risk team, you know, our IT department developed an app for our guests. So instead of having to go to the desk and sign-up for something, you opened up your personal phone, your tablet, you opened up the app and you signed up. So, it was a little limiting, the contact, a contact. We have the six feet apart and we have the mask mandate in place. When we first opened, we had the masks signage everywhere, you know, we thought that was going to be difficult to handle. Our guests and our staff, you know, we really were able to come together and fight it. And you know, now there are certain individuals that continue to wear the mask, which is fine. That’s your own choice. You know, it is recommended to continue to wear the mask. And most of us do when we’re inside, you know, and now …
Kind of going back to March of 2020, I mean, because you know, because our firm shutdown as a result of the governor’s mandate and the like, because it was deemed non-essential, which, it’s a whole other issue that’s there. But I think of Woodloch in just the ability to socially distance there, that it would be a very good place to keep families apart for long periods of time, for campers, beautiful cabins, and you know, golfing and the like. So, I think we should reconsider this in being a social distancing center, very essential if, god forbid, this happens again.
Luckily, in 2020, the outdoor weather was in our favor. So, we had a lot of outdoor activities, and we have, you know, a lot of acres to be able to have more of the social distance. And, you know, we have a five-star golf course that was fully operated. And that was definitely well taken care of and definitely well attained, and you know, all of our properties. We have a lovely acreage that we’re able to go outside. And, you know, guests felt comfortable because there were enough areas for them to space out. So, 2020 was definitely in our favor because families were able to get away and still feel safe and comfort, and then be able to go away and have vacation with their homes.
And I really have to say something about you and end it with a question. This here is that you know, I can text you at 4:00 a.m., you’re awake working. I can email you at 5:00 a.m.. You are awake working. You will get emails from consulates at 5:00 a.m. You are awake to respond. You will get documents. You will get whatever it is. You will see a problem from one employee and thousands of employees. You manage a crew of thousands of employees with an incredible amount of professionalism, where they respect you, where they want to work with you. How do you do it?
I ask myself that every day, but I just do it because I know what we need to continue to operate. I mean, the company has been very great to me and my family, and I just want to give back to them and make sure that I give them all of my all and 110%. And when I get that email and I’m lying in bed, yeah, I’m going to answer it. It’s one less thing for me to do when I get to the office. And it’s also a quick response will hopefully, in the end, get a quick reaction. You know, that’s my goal.
Also, you know where you’ll lead your HR team, you take the charge and you’re not going to micromanage, but you’ll jump in. You by no means micromanage, but you jump in and you actively solve problems, you know, very, very quickly. And you’re not afraid to challenge the State Department, to challenge DHS, and then to push things. And that’s really important as a leader of a workforce where you have owners, you have management, and you have employees that you have to take care of. And you know, the most important thing is serving your visitors who are coming there, basically the other group. I was watching Jersey Shore a little bit of bit ago. I don’t know if you can talk about this here, but apparently I saw them recording. Is there something that happened up there? Is that true that, you know, the situation was up there? At Woodloch, or you know.
I may have heard that they came to see.
You don’t have to comment. You don’t have to comment.
I personally did not see them. Yes. but I heard that they may have been here.
Excellent. Well, it was interesting. I think you know as I watched it I kind of remember a lot of the stuff that’s walking around, but it’s pretty, it’s pretty, pretty awesome. Seeing that though. But Melissa, thank you so much for being on here again, as I was saying, you run an incredible group of employees, and you work for an incredible team of management. And that says a lot about you, that you’re able to to navigate both of those ends successfully, hundreds of employees and hundreds of employees that you still need right now. I really want to thank you for coming on today.
Yeah, thank you. Yeah. Thank you. And I love your firm. You guys are great you too, I’ll email you, and it’s not every day that an attorney will email you back at 4:00 a.m. and it’s …
Yeah So, I appreciate all of all you’ve done for our company as well. You and your team are great.
We’re here, we’re here because you do a lot for the community. You really did, too, by employing so many as a lot, you know, for our economy, for our community, and you’re just an awesome person. So, this has been Norris Speaks – Immigration Matters, a limited podcast series where we delve into the economic, employment, and cultural realities of immigration in the Lehigh Valley in greater Pennsylvania. I want to thank Melissa Langone and for joining us today, each of you for listening, be sure to tune in next time for a brand-new episode. And if you would like to learn more about immigration law, feel free to visit our website and national immigrationlawyers.com, or if you would like to learn more about Woodloch Resorts, visit www.woodloch.com.