Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Some local businesses feeling the labor squeeze

“I have so many jobs to offer and no one is asking for them”

By Katherine Nettles

One of the hallmarks of a ski town has always been seasonal jobs, but every ski season brings new challenges for employers looking for workers to step up and spend a winter skiing and working. A quick survey this week indicates that local businesses this year have a wide range of seasonal worker issues, with some restaurants extremely short-staffed and other businesses sitting pretty while workers wait for it to get busy enough to start working.

The Avalanche Bar and Grill, an independent restaurant at the base area in Mt. Crested Butte that employs as many as 60 people each winter, is now at a crossroads due to lack of full staffing as the holiday season unfolds. The Avalanche has had a local and visitor following for lunch, après-ski visits and dinner for the past 30 years, and even before that as the former Artichoke Restaurant.

Todd Barnes, who has owned the Avalanche for the past 11 years, says he is short about 35 employees for this winter. He is looking for cooks, hosts, cashiers and managers. He took a break from fixing a kitchen hood vent at the restaurant on Tuesday to speak about his conundrum with the Crested Butte News, noting that his rooftop repair is one of many jobs he is filling, for lack of any other options.

“I like running a restaurant,” he said. “I enjoy cooking, I enjoy serving people, I enjoy the industry.” But as Barnes was up on the roof pulling a hood vent apart, he said he has been wondering if there is a paradigm shift happening. He has historically been able to count on a workforce of young people, or those young at heart, who may be taking a year or two off from school, or taking time away from the “real world.” But this year his list of employees is short and he is getting worried about the immediate future.

Aside from the niche market of year-round, specialized work within organizations around the valley, there is traditionally a seasonal abundance of opportunities within the service industries as well. A walk down Elk Avenue shows more than a dozen “Help Wanted” signs, as do the Crested Butte News classifieds. Many of these seasonal enthusiasts hold a few shifts in retail or perhaps on the mountain, and then clock in a few nights per week at a restaurant, which generally gets you a shift meal, a convivial atmosphere of peers and some extra money. But the employees aren’t showing up, says Barnes. He says his various ads and signage have tuned up only five calls in six weeks.

“Where are the 19- to 26-year-olds?” he asked. “Have they heard that it’s not worth it to show up until mid-December? Have they heard that it’s not worth it to show up until the snow really flies? Is it the housing problem? But there are 30 ads in the paper for housing or for rooms—and the prices aren’t that bad. I don’t think it’s any one thing.”

While there are certainly gaps in staffing almost everywhere, many small retail shop owners and managers along Elk Avenue feel they are reasonably well-staffed. Common sentiments expressed by business owners and managers earlier this week include: “I wish I could afford to hire someone besides myself”; “We keep it limited to just a few of us”; or, “Summer is the only time we can justify additional employees.”

These might also be common refrains of any small retail shop, anywhere in the world. One Elk Avenue shop owner said the reason she opened up a boutique clothing store in the first place was so she wouldn’t have to rely on additional employees much and could keep the hours with which she was comfortable.

Every ski shop surveyed on the mountain and in town said they were set with returning employees. Yet other restaurant owners in the area have reported similar problems to Barnes’, with a lack of applicants who want to work more than one day per week.

“I need people who actually want to work,” said Wooden Nickel owner/operator Eric Roemer, who noted, like Barnes, that someone working one day per week doesn’t lend itself to stable schedule routines or efficiency.

Octopus Coffee and bakery owner Alexis Bauer said she has ample staffing for winter, but has decided to put her business up for sale after becoming increasingly frustrated with the challenge of summer staffing. One theory she offered was that the businesses that launched years ago, or have been able to launch with extraordinary funding reserves akin to being backed by Wall Street, may have had an easier time becoming established. “But now, housing is at critical mass, the lap-topper invasion of the mobile workplace has filled available rentals but they earn their income in other economies,” she said. And the staffing issue can be a make-or break one.

“Restaurants cannot make magic without a stage,” she wrote of her more frustrating encounters this year with disgruntled or underserved customers and lack of adequate workforce. ”For example, town is awash with excitement for better sustainability, and no more plastics or disposables. But how is that possible if no one is there to wash dishes?” she wrote.

Bauer noted that finding workers who are willing to work day shifts is especially tough. “With huge off-seasons to struggle through, locals may choose to work for more established businesses instead of risking their precious peak summer season to a start-up,” she said. She is now pivoting to production-only instead of service, and to focusing on the businesses she has in places like Grand Junction.

Barnes says the seasonality and the lack of workers has him in a crunch where he is facing 14-hour days almost non-stop this ski season. He may adjust hours as he has in the past to be open from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. for late lunch through dinner, but he is a long way off from having enough staffing even for that endeavor. His two teenagers are both employed at the restaurant.

“My son is learning to cook at 13 years old. My daughter is a cashier at 16 years old. And she’s darn good at it,” he said. “When she grows up and chooses what she wants to do with her life, she’ll be able to choose a lot of things from that experience,” he said of the early training.

The worker shortage isn’t consistent across the community, or divided between Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte, or even by seasonal and year-round positions. It may be more about industry, in which restaurants seem to struggle the most. The walk-in survey of almost two dozen shops and restaurants in both communities this week turned up mixed reviews—many places could use one or two more employees, dishwashers in particular.

Some bars and restaurants actually have no employee vacancies, and report they have maintained a senior staffing with the change of seasons and even for the past couple years.

Still other restaurants remain closed until mid-December, and open the week before Christmas with a cold start. Crested Butte Mountain Resort reports that it is not feeling much of a squeeze. Butte 66, the Vail Resorts-owned base area bar and restaurant, appears to be well staffed for the season, although workers there have said applicants are sent through a nation-wide database and recruitment system, which goes well beyond classified ads or “Help Wanted” signs. They also said that mid-mountain restaurants are still hiring.

Vail Resorts’ senior communications manager Sara Lococo wrote by email, “We are in a good spot right now at CBMR and are staffed for our current needs, however we will continue to recruit and hire seasonal positions throughout the year, as well as additional holiday support, as needs ebb and flow.”

Time will tell if people are simply waiting longer to show up for job opportunities, or if it’s a longer-term disparity. Barnes says he will give it another year or two, hoping to turn things around.

“It’s a tough spot. When it all starts to crumble, what do you do?” he said. “I have so many jobs to offer and no one is asking for them. It makes my heart break how hard I’ve worked for this. I’ve survived for 30 years here on businesses. I am happy to work alongside people, to work hard. I’m not just out skiing or at home drinking coffee. But 14-hour days is not what I had in mind.”

While Barnes has other, well-paying opportunities within the building and contractor industry to fall back on to make a living, he says most of all, he wants to keep the Avalanche going. “I like owning a bar. I like owning a restaurant. I would hope that the people are going to show up,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

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