Northwoods businesses have seen an increase in frustrations from customers seeking both services and supplies.
As more Americans look to move out of the city during the pandemic, local businesses supplying lumber and a range of other products are struggling to meet the demand. 
“What we have seen in our area is all of these people from the inner cities, bigger cities, are moving up here, they’re adding on to their cabins, they are adding another office space, they’re coming up here, so the demand is here,” Pukall Lumber retail manager Shane Schwingle said.
He said the main factors contributing to the shortage center around the COVID-19 pandemic: ships shutting down, a lack of transportation and a bug in Canada which has destroyed a large number of trees.
“I talked to a mill that owns 17 mills and they said they are normally at 115% capacity, at this time — they’re at seven (percent capacity) right now,” Schwingle said.
He said red cedar wood and cedar shims are impossible to get and due to a lack of resin, PVC pipes, vinyl siding and blue electrical boxes have become increasingly harder to find. 
Texas was a large manufacturing location for the resin needed to make these products, but with the February 2021 winter storms, power outages caused the majority of locations to shut down and halt production. 
As a result of the lumber shortage, Schwingle said the mill is doing well, but with the cost of lumber at a 188% increase, people are holding off on building until prices go down. 
He said there’s been rumors prices could begin dropping in August or September of 2021. 
“I belong to the Northwest Lumber Association and they’re asking us to slow down on our buying and try to not buy unless we absolutely have to — to try to get those stocks back up and get those prices down,” Schwingle said. 
However, he said he doesn’t know what the solution could be and in his six years in the business, he’s never seen anything like this. 

Labor shortage
Not only has supply and demand been an issue with product, Schwingle said he’s struggling to find employees. 
“I can’t tell you how many times we have an employee start out there and by their 9 o’clock break, they leave and we never see them again,” he said. 
After raising employee compensation rates, looking at their workplace atmosphere and creating an employee club, he said nothing has worked. 
“We are constantly feeling a lack of employees,” he said. “I’m always hiring, the mill is always hiring, we just can’t find enough people to keep up with the demand.”
A common theme among the local businesses was the labor shortage and why the demand is so high after so many people lost their jobs in the start of the pandemic. 
One theory was if the unemployment checks were too high. 
Congress passed an expansive relief package with an unprecedented $600-per-week supplement for jobless workers. 
Wisconsin’s maximum weekly unemployment benefit is $370, however with the program the maximum possible benefit increased to $670 per week, before tax withholding. The goal was to replace wages so people could survive the economic lockdown.
As a result, many people could be receiving substantially more money while unemployed than they made while they were working. 
Economists at the University of Chicago used government data from 2019 to estimate 68% of unemployed workers, who can receive benefits, are eligible for payments greater than their lost earnings.
Pukall isn’t the only local business struggling, in the past few months, the Northwoods has seen an increase in “we’re hiring” signs from a variety of places including lumber companies, restaurants and auto shops.
Lee Construction owner Dick Lee is one of those businesses facing both hurdles. 
“The last couple weeks I had a few guys leave, because other guys are paying more,” Lee said. “It’s an employee market, if someone is going to offer them $2 more, there’s no loyalty, they’re gone.” 
He agreed with Schwingle on why the demand has increased drastically in the area and said although prices have increased, he said the majority of customers building new homes or renovating have decided to “choke it down and keep going.”   
“I’m redoing prices today on some jobs and the numbers are staggering,” he said. “Something that was $12 a year ago is now $60.” 
The price increase reflects the cost of plumbing, wood, roof shingles, electrical and windows — all of which Lee said have increased dramatically since January.
And similar to Schwingle, he said he doesn’t know when this will be resolved and has even heard it’s only going to get worse. 
However, Lee said being proactive and explaining to the customer why the delays are happening is the best thing they can do right now. 
Other industries aren’t exempt; with shortages seen in meat supply, car parts, plastic bags, and even ketchup. 
Dan Armstrong of McCoy Construction and Forestry said they are struggling to get the parts needed to build their machines. He said the biggest impact for them has been customer frustrations with the limited product. 
Unexpected businesses such as furniture have also been impacted. 
Lakeland Furniture and Mattress of Minocqua owner Rich Biller said his store has experienced most shortages related to the foam needed to make furniture. 
Which, similar to Pukall, was also impacted by the winter storms in Texas. 
“The foam chemical plants, the chemicals needed to make the foams — it’s not only our industry, they make them for cars too, but that impacted them because they had to shut down for whatever, maybe 10-14 days,” he said. 
Another issue Biller said is the transportation of imported goods. He said some of their supplies come from China, but the port is in California where the containers have sat for weeks. 
“When the factories could open up too, back when we had the quarantine, I don’t think the workforce was coming back in full force and you got a lot of issues there,” he said. 
However, Biller said the supply and demand issue has been both a struggle and a good thing for their industry. 
“Our business has been good, but trying to service our customers, which is the number one thing we try to do here, has been hard,” he said. 
He said he’s been in the furniture business for 34 years and has never seen anything close to this. 
Biller said typically the Amish handmade furniture they carry takes the longest, however with the current shortages and delays, that’s changed. 
“Now ironically the Amish furniture is shipping faster than the manufacturers,” he said.  
As of April 9, 2021 lumber prices are up over 188% since the start of the pandemic.
President Joe Biden’s supply chain review will focus on particular supply chains that presumably present higher immediate risk and will take place over an 100-day period.

The four critical product areas: 
• Commerce: semiconductor manufacturing and advanced packaging supply chains. 
• Energy: high-capacity batteries, including electric-vehicle batteries.
 •Defense: critical minerals and other identified strategic materials, including rare earth elements.
• Health and Human Services: pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients.
There has been no indication of when the shortages will be resolved and the uncertainty remains a concern for local businesses. 
Rachael Perry may be reached at rperry@lakelandtimes.com.