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‘Great Resignation’ strains Colorado ski town economies during winter peak

Pandemic stresses have made mountain communities in Colorado even more unaffordable for frontline workers.

SILVERTHORNE, Colo. (CN) — Mid-December is usually the busiest time of year for Colorado’s ski country, but the Qdoba in Silverthorne has only three people working.

Amid banners advertising job benefits, unemployment in many mountain communities remains well over the state 5.1% average including 7.6% in San Miguel County, home of Telluride, and 6.1% in Aspen’s Pitkin County.

Officially unemployment dropped to 3.9% in Summit County, where Silverthorne sits beneath Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. Nevertheless, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimated Colorado’s U-6 rate, which includes part-timers and people marginally attached to the workforce, remained 12.3% through the second quarter of 2021.

With 20 workers, Qdoba could be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. With just three people, however, the burrito bar is only open five days a week, from 10:30 a.m. - 2 p.m., with slightly longer hours on Friday to catch the evening crowd.

“It's just a struggle right now trying to get people in here,” said general manager Matthew Spaulding behind the register. “Summit County is hurting, and everyone is hiring.”

In the same strip mall, Cheba Hut is running with 32 workers, marking its best year yet, but also leaving the toasted sandwich shop only three-quarter staffed.

“What we came to realize is the name of the game now is benefits and what you can do for your employees,” said general manager Richard Jones. “Within the last year, we've increased all that and we now offer full health, dental, vision insurance and a 401(k).”

Besides starting wages at $15 an hour, Jones said, “having a fun place for people to work is important so people want to show up to work. That’s especially true up here. All they have to do is toss a rock for the next job.”

These days Cheba Hut and Qdoba aren’t just competing for customers, they’re competing for would-be workers who are applying to everywhere on the block.

“We haven't had so many unfilled positions as we do now,” said Margaret Bowes, executive director of Colorado Association of Ski Towns. “But it all comes down to housing. In resort communities, housing has been unattainable.”

A staffing agency in Dillon, Colorado, advertises job opportunities on Dec. 18, 2021. (Amanda Pampuro/Courthouse News)

When the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down in March 2020, many mountain towns worried the tourism economies would tank. But when they reopened in June, visitors came in droves.

Part-time residents moved into vacation homes. Stir-crazy city slickers took road trips and booked Airbnbs. Instead of bottoming out, the housing market reached new peaks.

“Affordability has been an issue as long as there's been ski towns. They're typically expensive places to live with lower-paying jobs, but since the pandemic the stresses on workforce and affordable housing have only increased,” Bowes said.

Before 2020, most of the communities’ full-time residents worked in the county and earned less than $150,000 annually, according to the 2021 Mountain Migration report. Conversely, 70% of 2020 newcomers and 80% of part-time residents reported earning more than $150,000 annually.

Three-quarters of residents who worked outside the county make more than $300,000 annually, nearly 10 times the wages of a full-time employee earning $15 an hour.

“The bulk of the jobs that it takes to sustain a service economy here, whether it's construction, maintenance, housekeeping or restaurant jobs, those jobs aren't even close to competing in that $150,000 and up income,” said Jon Stavney, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

In addition to welcoming new wealthier residents, many mountain communities experienced tourism booms during the pandemic instead of the expected bust. The Mountain Migration Report recorded gross sales volume rising 64% across Routt, Grand, Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and San Miguel counties, from $8.2 billion in 2019 to $13.4 billion in 2020.

While beneficial to the local economy, the influx of visitors further strained housing stock. Empty units that might attract workers instead became profitable short-term rentals through sites like Airbnb and VBRO.

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“When the Great Recession hit, Summit County was hit just like everybody else and then quickly started to recover with sales tax dollars,” said Blair McGary, executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce. “What didn't happen during the recovery is Summit County's wages never rebounded.”

Per MIT's Living Wage Calculator, a single person needs to make at least $17.21 per hour to afford to live in Summit County. A family with two children needs to earn $25.46 per hour, even with both parents working. State minimum wage remains $12 an hour.

“Mountain living is more expensive, yet the wages are not keeping up with that,” McGary said.

To attract and retain workers, businesses are now raising wages.

“Before, an employer in Aspen was paying their employees $10 an hour plus tips, and now they're having to pay $18 or $20 an hour plus tips,” observed Tatiana Bailey, executive director of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Economic Forum.

While wage increases are beneficial to workers, they also come at a cost for businesses.

“Whether it's a large skiing company or a small brewery, eventually those costs really start to cut into the proprietary income,” Bailey said. “As employers start to say, ‘Hold on, I'm going to have to increase my prices,’ it becomes a vicious cycle because with prices increasing, your average household is having to spend more.”

Businesses are therefore learning to work with fewer people — shortening hours, closing on Mondays and reducing menus to dishes easily learned by new hires.

“A lot of hospitality industries are purchasing capital to replace labor,” Bailey added. “Like fast food restaurants where everything's on an iPad, so you don’t need people to take orders.”

But wages are only part of the equation. Local governments and businesses are working to secure housing for frontline workers.

Winter Park’s Short-Term Fix program spent $375,000, incentivizing property owners to convert short-term rentals into six or 12-month leases, giving $10,000 for single units signed onto a 12-month lease and $20,000 for two or three-bedroom units. The program added 47 worker units to the town’s stock within months.

Besides offering rental and down payment assistance, Eagle County’s Bold Housing Moves initiative includes doling out $150,000 for property owners to convert garages and other accessory dwellings into housing. Other counties are encouraging property owners to enter deed restrictions that require owners to live in their homes.

“I hear from all parts of my district the challenges around a workforce shortage that has been exacerbated by a lack of affordable housing, a lack of childcare, and certainly other pressures that increase the cost of living,” said state Representative Julie McCluskie, a Democrat who represents five counties and 10 ski resorts in District 61.

In the upcoming legislative session, McCluskie said she hopes to invest more of the $3.8 billion the state received from the American Rescue Plan in affordable housing and workforce revitalization.

“Every employer has been impacted,” McCluskie said, from teachers and health care workers to seasonal hospitality workers.

Some property owners have also taken matters into their own hands. Andrew Petersen, owner of Colorado Angler in Silverthorne, is renting out his three-bedroom apartment below market value.

Nine-year-old golden retriever River greets customers at the Colorado Angler shop in Silverthorne, Colorado, on Dec. 18, 2021.

“I want to be part of the solution,” he said. “I thought I would rent it out to any employees that needed a place to stay, but they were all settled and so the local public defender ended up moving in.”

Now Petersen’s unit is being rented to youth sports coaches.

He’s lived in Summit County since 1987 after he fell in love with the place on a fateful ski trip. But like many others, Petersen is also short on workers. Come spring, he could use three more employees in the store and at least five river guides.

Housing programs and higher wages help, but there is also a work-life balance sought by the people who move to the mountains. And that is less easily preserved.

“Sure, the money lets me pay my rent, pay my bills, but I want a job with intrinsic value,” said Steven Weber, who commuted 40 minutes to Silverthorne for a job interview. “I like skiing, I like fishing. Outdoor recreation has been booming, and this is one of the destinations.”

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