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Steamboat businesses grapple with labor shortage as winter season looms

A sign outside the Colorado Bagel Co. encourages customers to be kind to employees while another sign recruits potential workers.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Jamie Jones remembers having a crew of service workers at her restaurant, but she fears those days are gone.

Jones, who works at Brick, is often the only front-of-house worker on a weekday shift, meaning she takes orders, answers the phone, cleans and interacts with long lines of customers.

Though the restaurant staffs high school students on the weekends, Jones is often the only worker during the week, which makes her job stressful and difficult.



“It’s kind of scary because it’s just a situation that no one has ever really been in in this town,” Jones said.

Jones, who grew up in Steamboat Springs, remembers a lifetime pattern of young service workers flocking to town for the winter, taking jobs in restaurants and leaving for the summer.



But ever since COVID-19 brought more wealthier homeowners to town, Jones said the pattern has changed.

A nationwide problem

A drive around Steamboat shows many businesses are closing early, changing their hours and begging for prospective employees to apply.

Still, a shortage of employees, particularly in the service industry, is by no means unique to Steamboat.

Steamboat Springs Chamber Director of Economic Development John Bristol said the labor shortage is somewhat different in mountain towns, which rely on service industry workers to keep their tourism-based economies afloat.

“There’s no clarity on where exactly people are going, but I think that the sense is that people are looking around for other options,” Bristol said.

Bristol attributed the city’s labor shortage to several factors: lack of access to affordable child care; a fear of losing a job or missing a paycheck if COVID-19 protocols are put back in place; concern about catching COVID-19; and, perhaps, the most prominent, the inability to find housing.

“People have been talking about the ‘great resignation’ as the theme recently,” Bristol said. “I think that it’s probably more of a great reevaluation and reassessment of what folks are doing in their lives and the direction they want to go.”

 

Grace Ventrone delivers an order while working lunch at Big House Burgers in Steamboat Springs on Friday afternoon.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

COVID brought longstanding problems to the surface

While the burden of child care and household responsibilities has long fallen on women, Bristol said the pandemic put even more responsibilities on them.

That sentiment is true for Allison Houston, a lifelong Steamboat resident who works as a bartender at Sheraton Steamboat Resort Villas.

Houston, a single mother raising a 7-year-old, struggled for the first six years of her son’s life, as she could not afford child care by herself, and the Boys & Girls Club of Northwest Colorado, which she said is the most affordable child care option in town, did not take children until they turned 6.

Dealing with sky-rocketing rent costs, Houston said she had no choice but to pay $45 an hour for child care and pick up a second job at a grocery store, which left her with even less time to spend with her son.

“If you happen to be a single parent, having child care at an affordable cost is not found here,” Houston said. “You’re kind of up against a wall as a single parent or guardian.”

Houston, who has noticed the labor shortage in her own workplace, said she personally knows friends and colleagues who have had to leave town because they either could not afford child care, housing or both.

“I feel like if we had more housing, then more people would stay and more people would come back,” she said.

Houston said the gap between members of the local workforce and wealthy second-home owners has always been apparent, but COVID-19 made the divide greater.

“We’re several years behind on this one,” Houston said. “I was almost homeless last year because I couldn’t afford the rate my landlord wanted to raise the rent to, but he told me it would be stupid not to take advantage of the market rate.”

While Houston is optimistic about workforce housing being built in town, she believes the Yampa Valley Housing Authority’s Brown Ranch project is coming far too late, and she is concerned about hotels that are being converted to workforce housing only being used for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. employees.

“If this keeps up, what will I do?” Houston said.

Kimmi Sulley takes orders at Big House Burgers in west Steamboat Springs on Friday afternoon. Sulley, who has worked at the restaurant for five years, is staying busy these days as most local businesses continue to be impacted by worker shortages.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

To stay or to go?

Trained as a bartender, Houston said she often finds herself doing the job of multiple people, because the hotel restaurant is understaffed.

“I think everyone in the industry feels like they’re doing a bunch of different jobs right now,” Houston said. “I go into a restaurant, and sometimes, there’s one server for the entire place.”

Still, Houston chooses to stay in the hospitality industry rather than seeking a different job because she enjoys the work.

“I feel like the people that have chosen to stick it out, we’re trying the best we can, but it’s so hard,” Houston said.

Houston believes that the way servers were treated during COVID-19 probably plays a big part in why many are not eager to return to restaurant jobs.

“People see what’s going on, and it’s a fear that you will be overworked and underappreciated by the end of the season,” Houston said. “When there was a mask mandate, people were angry and yelling at us all the time on top of all the other things the service industry has to deal with.”

Julia Sumer moved to Steamboat in 2019 because she wanted to experience life in a ski town. She took a job at a local ski shop, but said its pay, which was $14 an hour at the time, was hardly enough to cover her rent, let alone other bills.

Sumer eventually left that job to work at Vacasa, where she makes $25 an hour and has full benefits.

“That changed everything for me in that things I used to stress about aren’t as much of a stress anymore,” Sumer said. “I still have those things to worry about, but I have the income to offset them.”

A large sign hanging above the entrance to City Market in Steamboat Springs lets potential workers know the company is hiring.
John F. Russell/ Steamboat Pilot & Today

Impacting every industry

Kajsa Lindgren, who runs Steamboat Nordic Center and Haymaker Nordic Center, said she originally did not expect to lose employees because much of the job at a ski center involves being outside.

But after dealing with a season of customers protesting masks in the indoor gear rental and restaurant spaces, Lindgren understands why so many of her employees have opted not to return to work this season, especially because many are immunocompromised and nervous about catching COVID-19.

“A lot of our staff has expressed to me that yes, they are afraid of catching COVID, and I don’t blame them.” Lindgren said. “At the moment, we’ve brainstormed as much as we can, but nothing is sticking.”

Lindgren mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for her employees, and on her team of 15, only one was concerned about receiving it. After addressing some of the employee’s concerns, the person chose to get the vaccine.

Still, Lindgren said the expected influx of tourists with an unknown vaccine status, no statewide mask mandate and expensive housing have all contributed to a shortage of employees heading into the winter season.

“Honestly, they say ‘no’ because it’s not worth their life to get COVID and not be alive,” Lindgren said. “No matter how much money you give them, it doesn’t matter.”

Pushing further out

Shannon Hill said making $14 an hour at City Market Fuel Station was an unfair wage, as Kroeger, City Market’s parent company, earned about $2.78 billion in profit in 2020 according to Statista, a German company that tracks market and consumer data.

“You can’t live on that in Steamboat,“ said Hill, who grew up on the Front Range and moved to Steamboat to experience the outdoor lifestyle. ”The company was not willing to pay a livable wage.“

Hill worked at the gas station for about five years, first as a clerk, then as a manager, where she said she experienced constant turnover because employees could not afford to live in Steamboat.

After rotating through houses and apartments with several roommates, Hill finally found herself priced out of Steamboat, and she moved to Hayden.

“Most of the workforce has had to move out of Steamboat, which of course made everything worse,” Hill said. “It was definitely a problem before COVID, but it’s gotten worse.”

Hill eventually left the gas station for a job at the Routt County Humane Society, which she said is much more fulfilling.

Combating the crisis

Bernie Tomassetti has the opposite problem from most employers in Steamboat. He has too many people wanting to work at Powder Tools and not enough space to hire them all.

“It’s the best job in Steamboat for sure,” Tomassetti said.

While Tomassetti declined to say how much his employees earn, he said employees are able to ride Steamboat Resort nearly every day and are connected to industry professionals.

“If you want a career in snowboarding, we’re kind of an in for that,” Tomassetti said. “A lot of people who come to Steamboat to snowboard want to work here.”

On a similar career trajectory, Phil Armstrong, founder of Destination Management that owns Aurum Food & Wine, Table 79 Foodbar and The Periodic Table in Steamboat, said his employees find themselves on a path to lifelong, lucrative careers in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

Still, Armstrong said the housing shortage has hit his business hard.

“To say it’s dire would be an understatement,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said most of his prospective employees who decline jobs do so because they are unable to find affordable housing in town. To combat this, Armstrong has secured several town homes off of Captain Jack Drive for employees, but he said this has not solved the labor problem.

Similarly, Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., one of Routt County’s largest employers, is understaffed, with Opening Day for the 2021-22 ski season set for Nov. 20.

“We obviously still have a lot of winter seasonal positions open, and we are actively recruiting and hoping that we can fill as many jobs as possible,” said Loryn Duke, Ski Corp. director of communications. “We are making decisions based on less than 100% staffing.”

The resort offers housing for its employees, but the housing available only covers a fraction of employees who need it.

Duke said the resort is more understaffed in cooks for its restaurants. Because of this, Ski Corp. now offers two months of free rent for cooks living in Ski Corp. housing.

“Unfortunately, Steamboat Resort is in the same position as businesses across the country, and we’re trying to adapt to the reality of that,” Duke said.


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