Some Steamboat businesses opt to raise wages, add benefits as COVID-19 employment crunch continues
The pandemic brought many new challenges for businesses in Steamboat Springs the past 16 months, but Jessica Valand, director of workforce development for Northwest Colorado, believes it also accelerated some existing issues.
Valand contends those issues are a big reason many employers in Routt County are challenged with finding workers to fill staffing needs despite the economy looking to rebound. Specific issues include the county having a super competitive housing market and a highly educated workforce that does not line up with the abundance of low-wage, entry-level jobs needed to support a service-sector, tourism-driven economy.
“The pandemic exacerbated things that were kind of already in the works, but it’s just the way that things have shaken out in the economy, and it certainly seems like it’s added fuel to a fire,” she said.
Even with an April unemployment rate locally of 5.9%, businesses across all sectors have struggled to find applicants. Currently there are 485 verified jobs in the area, but most are entry level and require few skills. In the fourth quarter of last year, the average hourly wage in Routt County was $26.55 an hour compared with the state average of $34.40 an hour.
Mike Higgins, co-owner of Gecko Landscaping & Design in Steamboat, said the company has increased its hourly wages but with limited success in attracting new employees. Currently employees with limited or no experience can start at just under $20 an hour, and those with experience can earn up to $30 an hour.
“The cards are lined up for us to have our best summer ever,” Higgins said. “We have some of the best landscapes we’ve ever designed … and we can’t do it.”
Gecko Landscape & Design typically has just under 50 employees. Last year, because of impacts from COVID-19, the company ended with about 40 employees. This year the company’s staff is down 30%. Because of the decrease, Higgins told many longtime clients Gecko would not be able to work for them this summer.
Most of the problems finding employees are directly related to the housing market in Steamboat, according to Higgins.
“If we find people, they can’t find housing, and so it’s like that: You find someone great, and they don’t want to commute all the way from Craig or Hayden,” he said.
Rex Brice, owner of Rex’s Family of Restaurants, is facing the same situation.
The local restaurant group has about 340 employees between its eight restaurants, but is scrambling to fill a few open positions. This summer, Brice is offering a $500 signing bonus and $500 referral bonus for back-of-house employees. He also offers employees competitive wages and benefits package, including bonuses, continuing education funds, medical, dental and more. Rex’s restaurants recently started offering mental health counseling discounts for employees and, in July, will begin offering a 401(k) with a 4% match.
“I think we’re lucky in that people want to work for our group,” Brice said. “We are still in need of people, and that’s caused us to not open dining rooms at 100%.”
The restaurant group’s shortfall totals about 20 employees for this summer, which will force many of the locations to partially close on certain days or nights.
“We’re making adjustments where needed,” Brice said. “As a community we really have to remember that we don’t get to just flip a switch and be done with this pandemic. … What we’re dealing with (this) summer is simply a symptom of the pandemic and a part of our healing process.”
As another local restaurateur, Phil Armstrong is also having trouble closing the employment gap.
Armstrong, who owns Destination Hospitality that includes three Steamboat Springs locations and one in Breckenridge, has had to change hours on some of his local eateries.
“We’re spending all of our time brainstorming and trying to figure out ways how to best combat this issue,” Armstrong said. “The demand is definitely outpacing our ability to meet the demand from a staffing standpoint.”
In an effort to beat the local housing crisis, Armstrong purchased several condominiums and has seven bedrooms available for employee housing. He also started offering a benefits package — something that he believes has been lacking in the restaurant industry for years.
“I want to think that it’s going to get better once the dust settles, but I’m really concerned that many people just have fled the industry and I understand why,” Armstrong said. “I’ll be the first to admit that the restaurant industry is that brutal on people.”
In addition to the restaurant sector, lodging was also taken through the gamut in the pandemic.
Robin Craigen has seen a decline in applicants walking through the doors of Moving Mountains, a locally-run property management company that oversees 120 luxury vacation rentals in Steamboat, Vail and Beaver Creek.
Locally, Moving Mountains manages about 60 properties and has about 70 employees during the ski season and between 30 and 40 in the summer. In 2019, an employee survey helped the business rank among the Top 100 Best Places to Work by Outside Magazine.
The benefit of being on the list, Craigen said, is it’s used by potential employees when looking at places to live.
“The only reason we can do what we do is because we have great employees. … It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing because if you don’t have great employees, you can’t do great things and you can only do great things if you have good employees, so it’s a circle of life for us,” he said.
Craigen is still attempting to fill some summer positions, but isn’t sounding any alarms just yet.
“We have long-term strategies in place to hire and retain good people,” he said. “Our wages and benefits are extremely competitive … and we’ve been working at this for a while to make sure that people are aware that we have availability, realize that they get compensated, that they get benefits and it’s a great place to work.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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Steamboat Springs resident Tony Distrola learned early the secret to life.