Monday, August 19, 2019

CB employee shortage hurting local businesses

Restaurant, retail and government all feeling the pinch as customer experience impacted

by Than Acuff and Mark Reaman

For the past several summers, the Help Wanted column in the classifieds has been overflowing. It’s even reached the point where businesses are reaching out via local Facebook marketplace pages and even taking out display advertisements in the local papers, seeking employees.

The shortfall has everyone from restaurants to retail and even the government sector scrambling to fill jobs and has caused some places to shut their doors during times when they could be making money. At least one prominent Elk Avenue restaurant announced in mid-June it would be open only Thursdays through Mondays instead of seven days a week, due to staff limitations. Other businesses are just dealing with a perpetual lack of workers.

“It’s getting harder to find employees and I think it’s a combination of more businesses and the housing shortage,” says Brick Oven Pizzeria co-owner Brian Schneider.

Chris Ladoulis of Django’s Restaurant on Elk Avenue agrees. “I believe this summer, employers are facing pressure from both supply and demand. The supply of seasonal workers seems lower, with fewer responses than ever to our employment ads,” he says. “We can speculate as to why—certainly housing is a factor, but I don’t know if that is the only explanation. It’s more acute for us in summer, because the resort draws fewer workers into town to work daytime on the mountain. There are a number of J1 visa student workers in town, willing to work double shifts, and that has helped tremendously.”

Ali Fuchs, owner of Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven on Elk Avenue, gets her fair share of resumes via email from people seeking employment but, as far as she can tell, housing is the deal breaker.

“The housing situation has got to be the biggest factor I feel,” she says. “The first question I ask them is: Do you have a place to live? I just don’t have another explanation for it. I’ve lost good employees in the past because they lost their housing.”

Director of Crested Butte Parks and Recreation Janna Hansen is short on staff for her summer seasonal workforce and has heard the same throughout other municipalities.

“I’ve talked to the town of Mt. Crested Butte, Crested Butte South and we’re all looking for the same kind of employees and having trouble finding them,” says Hansen.

Hansen got a jump on the summer and advertised for summer seasonal workers starting two weeks before the ski area closed. Even with that effort, when they started the summer season of work, she had fewer than half of the needed positions filled.

“We had only four of nine hired between gardeners and parks crew,” says Hansen. “Now we have seven out of nine, which is better. Stuff is still getting done that needs to get done, it’s just happening more slowly.”

For example, Hansen points out that their goal every year is to have all of the flowers out throughout town by the Fourth of July. This summer she has been forced to set the goal a bit lower.

“Now we’re just hoping to have all the flower barrels planted on Elk Avenue by the Fourth,” says Hansen.

Up in Mt. Crested Butte at the base of the ski area, Avalanche Restaurant owner Todd Barnes sees less of a need for workers in the summer as he adjusts to the seasonal shift where winter is his big season. “Still, I am surprised at the lack of people coming in for work. I did run an ad and a few people came in but I have largely filled the positions I need with regulars,” he notes. “Where I have full staff in winter of around 55 people, we get by with 15 or so in the summer. I could use one good server and one good host but we can also do that ourselves.

“There are only seven weeks ‘left’ in our summer,” Barnes continues. “Sometimes it’s not worth the training it takes in that timeframe. I have been saying that the first winter I don’t have a pile of resumes to turn down will be my indicator of a true crisis for our business. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago summers were a dud. Winter still rules my ability to make it here, so when I see a real lack of employees for the winter, that’s when I will sweat.”

Schneider has Brick Oven shifts covered to make it all work at his restaurant but he believes it comes at a cost to his staff. “I don’t want to overwork them,” he explains. “As an employer, it stinks to feel like you’re overworking your staff. They moved here to play, not for a career in pizza. I have a career in pizza. Dan and I try to tell them as much as possible, ‘On your days off, go camping, go riding, go fishing, have fun.’ That’s hard for them if they don’t have any days off.”

“I usually have people working four days but I’m now asking people to work five days a week and we just gotta put our heads down until mid-August,” says Fuchs. “I’m just super fortunate to have the employees that I have.”

Ladoulis said he has increased his wages to attract and keep employees. “Our base wage rate has increased 10 percent to 20 percent over last summer,” he said. “I doubt we’re alone. As a result, prices will likely increase throughout the town. With three pages of employment classifieds, and a help wanted sign on every restaurant, prospective employees have plenty of options. Our interview process used to last a week or more with multiple interviews. Now, decisions are made in seconds. Employee retention will now be a top priority for the survival of our business. While some of this summer’s situation may be a short-term anomaly, there are lasting long-term impacts to the decisions we have to make: We are trying to do more, with less, and we are re-evaluating the way we’ve been running our business.”

“There’s just doesn’t seem to be a big enough employee pool,” adds Fuchs. “I am paying higher wages than I ever have to get people and keep people.”

And it’s not just Crested Butte. “Amy and I take a hard look at other bars when we travel and we ask questions of the bartenders and managers to feel out their issues,” said Barnes. “The employment and housing issue seems to be universal. Quality help is hard to find and unemployment is low.”

Schneider also believes that, in the end, the employee shortage will have a negative impact on the visitor experience in Crested Butte. “If there aren’t enough bellhops, cleaners and kitchen workers, then [visitors] will get crummy service and then people won’t want to come back here,” says Schneider.

Fuchs shares Schneider’s concerns about the visitors’ experience in Crested Butte. While she is set for mechanics, her retail and rental “front of the house” staff is thin and that’s the first point of contact for customers.

“You can’t control the volume of people coming in on any given day but the volume is high,” says Fuchs. “You can’t provide the level of customer service that you want to and it doesn’t feel that good.”

“In short? It’s tough,” concludes Ladoulis. “I don’t see it getting easier. We’re all scrambling to adapt.”

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