When Summer’s Wages Are Finally Gone

“It’s a whole different ballgame” when it comes to employment in Door County, says Melissa Emery, Job Center Supervisor and Employment Program Manager for WEP, Inc. She says that “when the State labor folks report our workforce statistics, they always say that it excludes Door County and Wisconsin Dells.”

While I reflexively shudder when anyone tries to draw a comparison between our beloved Door County and Wisconsin Dells, I must admit that there is at least one great similarity that makes our respective workforce numbers into statistical anomalies. In both communities, our employment rises dramatically during our season, and it just as quickly falls off when the season is over.

Emery thinks that while we all understand this intellectually, sometimes we forget what a monumental challenge it presents for many families in Door County. Emery says that “our community has just become accustomed to it.”

Consider for a moment how different the experience is for a struggling family in Door County. You could be making the same amount of income as a similar family in Green Bay, but you might earn it by working nearly seven days a week all summer and only a handful of hours a month in the winter.

“You’re supposed to be putting a certain amount of pay aside,” says Estella Huff, Director of Operations of Feed and Clothe My People & Thrift Store, “but some people just can’t do that.” When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to plan beyond the next payday.

The workforce challenges presented by our seasonal nature are the norm in Door County. But today’s broader economic malaise is only exacerbating the problem.

“One of the changes we’re seeing is with our agriculture community,” says Emery. “The number of farmers faced with the need to get a part-time job is significant. We’ve never seen this type of environment before.”

This is creating a trickle down effect in our economy that is placing the heaviest burden on younger folks with less experience. “Young people have been hit hard with everything that’s going on,” says Emery. “Those jobs traditionally held by younger people are now being taken by older people who need any job they can find to hold them over.

“I’ve been [in] employment in one capacity or another for a long time. I’ve never seen it this bad.”

It’s easy to place the blame for these challenges squarely on the shoulders of the struggling families themselves. After all, nobody is forcing them to stay in Door County. If it’s easier to make ends meet living in Green Bay, no one’s stopping them from heading down the road.

But imagine how devastating it could be if we didn’t have quality employees working in seasonal positions. The shop cashier, the hotel maid, the waiter, the front desk clerk – these are the people that the visitors to Door County interact with the most. Our tourists and seasonal residents are the prime engine that drives our economy. If we don’t value the working men and women who greet our guests, how can we expect them to make these tourists and seasonal folks feel welcome?

I’m certainly not smart enough to come up with an easy and viable way to turn seasonal work into year-round, full-time employment. But one of the things we can do right now is support those charities who are working hard to alleviate the challenges caused by our seasonal nature.

The working men and women of Door County aren’t looking for a handout. Huff says “that vast majority of people don’t like to depend on any kind of program.” So most folks go through every penny they have before they reach out for help to places like Feed and Clothe My People. “Only when the unemployment stops do we see an increase,” says Huff.

Consider making a gift this off-season to ease the burden of a struggling family who is living in the shadows of our society. Let’s help that family bridge the gap until the warm days of summer are here and the sun shines down upon us all.

Here are just a few charities you might consider:

• Feed and Clothe My People: PO Box 741, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235, 920.743.9053

• Community Clinic of Door County: 1623 Rhode Island St., Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235, 920.746.8989

• FISC Consumer Credit Counseling: PO Box 652, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235, 920.743.1862

• United Way of Door County: PO Box 223, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235, 920.746.9645

For a more complete listing of Door County nonprofits, visit

Bret Bicoy is President & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. In 2008, he and his wife Cari returned to Wisconsin to raise their six children in the community they love. Contact him at [email protected].