Filling the labor gaps
November 8, 2016
As the fall shoulder season winds down and we prepare for the coming onslaught of winter businesses throughout Grand County are prepping for the snowy high season and the proverbial time to make hay.
Across Grand County signs are popping up in storefronts, and appearing in the classified pages of the Sky-Hi News. Business owners are looking for employees but despite the broad availability of work in Grand County many businesses struggle to maintain staffing. While nearly all Grand County businesses have encountered issues created by labor shortages the impacts are more acutely felt for some businesses than others. Still some establishments have found ways of coping with the underlying issues that often create shortages in the first place, leaving them with few staffing problems.
Poncho & Lefty's
Poncho & Lefty's is a restaurant in Grand Lake and a hallmark of that mountain community; popular with locals and tourists alike. Amber Felts, General Manager at Poncho & Lefty's said she is not at this moment experiencing staffing issues but added, "yes, pretty much every summer we experience labor shortages."
To close the gaps Poncho & Lefty's, like many businesses in Grand County, participates in the federal J-1 visa program that allows foreign student workers to work in the US on a temporary seasonal basis. Poncho & Lefty's has utilized J-1 visa workers for the past two summers, when their labor needs are highest, to cover their staffing requirements.
Felts attributed much of labor shortage in Grand County to a lack of available housing for workers. "We would much rather hire Americans," Felts said. "But there is not enough housing." Poncho & Lefty's keeps a core group of workers, some who have been working at the restaurant for nearly two decades. The restaurant was looking to fill a few seasonal worker slots for the coming winter and had originally intended to hire J-1 visa workers but according to Felts, "we had a bunch of Americans apply. This winter we decided we didn't need to bring any J-1s in."
The Gateway Inn
For the Gateway Inn in Grand Lake labor issues are not much of a problem at all. Lisa Jenkins, Manager of the Gateway Inn, explained her year round staffing levels means the Gateway doesn't need to hire much in terms of seasonal workers during the summer season.
She also pointed out the Gateway Inn has built housing for their staff members, alleviating many of the issues caused by housing shortages in the county. Jenkins added she believed it was the responsibility of employers who hire seasonal part-time staff to provide some type of housing options for those employees.
"Our year round staff is so solid," Jenkins said. "We only have to bring in a few seasonal workers. From 2008 up until now we have been able to hire locally. Next year we do anticipate hiring some J-1s."
According to Jenkins the Gateway Inn maintains most of it's workers year-round and adds seasonal workers during summer months to staff the Inn's bar and to do grounds keeping and other outdoor/landscape work that cannot be done in winter months.
Additionally Jenkins said she believed the compensation level workers at the Gateway Inn receive keeps turnover relatively low. "I pay them well enough to prevent much of that," she said. "Sometimes it is the employer that has to take on the responsibility. That is why we built our own employee housing. I sit down and think, 'if I were 30-years old and I was trying to earn a living and live up here, what do I need at a bare minimum to make it happen'. If I'm not paying well enough to have our staff make ends meet there will be problems. My staff are what makes me successful and I want to make sure they are well taken care of."
Country Ace Hardware
Country Ace Hardware in Granby has experienced labor shortages, though the issue is not a significant problem for Country Ace owner and manager Amy Kaplanis. "We keep on a core base of employees that are year round," Kaplanis said. "We hire seasonally in the summer. If we have a good fit with an employee we do everything to keep them on, on a full-time permanent basis."
Kaplanis said many of driving forces behind the shortages Country Ace encounters are markedly different than what drives labor shortages in many other industries in the county. Kaplanis said Country Ace seeks to hire professional retail associates who fit well with the overall team but during the recession she was able to hire construction workers and other skilled laborers who were short on work during the national lull. As the economy in the US and the high country has rebounded many of those individuals have gone back to working in the construction field.
This past summer Country Ace hired six foreign J-1 visa student workers for the summer construction and high tourism season. Additionally Kaplanis said she believes Country Ace's relatively strict hiring standards, requiring prospective employees pass both a drug test and a background check, means only quality workers looking for more stable employment apply to the store. "We are picky regardless," Kaplanis said referencing Ace's hiring standards.
Big Shooters Coffee
Big Shooters Coffee in Kremmling operates on yet another labor dynamic. More than the other business interviewed for this article Big Shooters Coffee relies on seasonal and part-time labor to cover their staffing needs.
Unlike many other Grand County businesses that struggle to fill all their staffing needs Big Shooters Coffee does not participate in the J-1 student worker visa program. Instead Stephanie Scholl, owner and operator of Big Shooters, relies on students during summer months to meet all her labor needs. Big Shooters Coffee has historically used dude ranch workers who live in the region and are off work or on reduced hours during the winter to cover any shortages when the snow is falling.
"For almost all my employees this is their second job," Scholl said. "I know people won't be here the rest of their lives and aren't trying to, 'move up the ladder'. My employees are going to come and go and are primarily seasonal. I think I am not as sensitive to labor shortages because of that."
Demand for additional labor goes up significantly for Big Shooters Coffee during the summer. According to Scholl she typically needs less than four employees during the winter whereas during summer months she typically needs at least eight. Scholl said most of her employees, even during the summer high season, work for around four to five hours per day. "I want them (employees) to be fresh," Scholl said. "Sometimes it can be a drawback but it is also appeal to employees. They know they won't work all day and get burned out. I know some businesses can't get around that though."