River Cinema maintains strong employee retention and satisfaction amid tight labor market – Grand Forks Herald

EAST GRAND FORKS — While many businesses have struggled with hiring and retention in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, River Cinema in East Grand Forks has experienced the opposite — a surfeit of young, enthusiastic employees.

For Roxie Honkola, who first worked at River Cinema from 2011-14, and returned in 2018 after a four-year hiatus, working at the theater is a family affair.

“My grandfather is the one who built this place,” said Honkola. “I moved here right after high school, and the theater sounded like a fun place to work. My brother worked here before me and really loved it, so I was excited to give it a try.”

Owner Penny Stai, who took over the business from her parents in 2020, employs mainly teenage and college-aged workers. You said hiring young employees is a fairly typical trend in the movie theater industry, and praises their work ethic.

“Most of my staff is 16-24 years old,” said Stai. “I very much enjoy working with a younger age group. They’re very hard workers – accountable and dependable. A lot of them will eagerly volunteer to cover shifts when their co-workers can’t come in.”

Honkola appreciates the flexibility Stai offers her employees, now that she has a family of her own.

“Penny lets you come in and tell her what your schedule is, then she works with you around it,” said Honkola. “I have a daughter, and she’s very accommodating in not scheduling me for nights and weekends. I used to bartend, and that kind of schedule would be impossible as a bartender.”

(L-R) River Cinema employees Jayce Kasprowicz, Damian Moore, Melah Evenson Perez, Harley Kolbo, Savannah Schaefer and Greyson Kuznia take a break for a photo Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023 in East Grand Forks.

Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Stai is cognizant of the importance of having such a loyal and hardworking team in the current labor market.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Grand Forks County for November, the most current month of data, was 1.6%, more than 2% below the national rate of 3.7%. Having such a low unemployment rate can make it difficult for employers to attract and retain employees. Stai says that’s something she hasn’t had to worry about.

“When COVID hit, lots of businesses were laying off staff. We retained all of our employees upon reopening,” said Stai.

Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, said such a tight labor market is beneficial for the region’s youth.

“Back when I grew up, finding a job as a high school student was very competitive,” said Wilfahrt. “Today, the market is 180 degrees different. Our metropolitan area has one of the five lowest unemployment rates in the US, so young workers have many employment opportunities. I also think the current market is forcing employers to be accommodating towards their schedules, which is important for young workers balancing other commitments such as school.”

Stai attributes her ability to attract and retain employees to offering benefits and flexible schedules.

“We offer our full-time employees paid time off, half off meals on the days they’re working and free movie tickets for themselves and one guest,” said Stai. “We can also work around their school schedules by offering night and weekend shifts. I think the positive work environment speaks for itself — most of my employees stay at least three to four years.”

You also said her current employees are also a good resource to recruit and hire new ones.

“A majority of my new hires are referrals from current ones — friends, family, roommates,” said Stai.

In terms of continued growth at the theater, Stai says every year since the pandemic’s onset has been stronger than the previous one, and she is expecting attendance to rebound to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

“A lot of the reasons behind our delay in returning to 2019 numbers has to do with a backlog in film production,” said Stai. “Instead of the usual 90 major releases, we have around 36. A lot of the animation components are backlogged. We’re hoping for more new releases in 2023, with the hope of pre-pandemic numbers by the end of 2024.”

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