Labor pains hit Aspen when at its busiest |

Labor pains hit Aspen when at its busiest

Employers struggling to fill staffing but hope pending change in unemployment benefits, return of J1 visa program will help

A “help wanted” sign hangs in the doorway of Aspen Pie Shop downtown as customers enjoy an afternoon meal on the patio in Aspen on Friday, July 16, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A security company turns away upward of $50,000 in business, a hotel cancels two beer tastings, and a restaurant says it can’t take on any more diners.

That lost business isn’t due to tight public health regulations but what has transpired in their wake — a labor crunch that is stretching the output of both employers and their employees in the Aspen area, and one that mirrors what is happening nationally.

It’s also happening locally when summer tourism is booming, prompting leaders to question whether marketing the town as a vacation resort is necessary given the local labor woes in the backdrop.

“I have had a longtime intelligent community member coming to me saying ‘why are we going to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to bring more people to this town?’” Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards said during a work session last week. “Everyone is asking that right now, and do we need to market anymore? That’s the big question people are out there asking in a big way.”

Some businesses are paying employees bonuses to join their crew. Vacation and property management firm Frias Properties of Aspen, for instance, has been advertising jobs for both maintenance and guest-services positions. And for the first time, it’s pledging extra money to new hires.

“We’re offering a $500 sign-on bonus, and we even offer a bonus to our current employees if they bring in somebody,” said Christina Provenzano, the human resources director for Frias, which currently has about 76 employees.

Yet when asked if the cash perks have sparked much of a response, Provenzano deadpanned: “I don’t know what else to say but no. We’ve had the ads running for two months, obviously before the start to the season, knowing we’re going to be super busy. But there have been very few bites due to a lack of interest.”

In the Aspen area, the struggle to find employees rests largely on multiple forces conspiring at once — a housing crunch, potential workforce members still collecting unemployment claims due to the pandemic, a scarcity of foreign workers, and some staffers who left their jobs and didn’t return.

“I don’t think you can point the finger at one single thing,” said Donnie Lee, general manager of The Gant Hotel in Aspen. “It’s just the perfect storm.”

The local employee-housing program is open to the working-class in Pitkin County, but it can’t house all of them. Many free-market residential rentals have become short-term vacation getaways.

And an influx of new residents, who work remotely in Aspen and can pay higher rent on the free market, only compounds the situation, according to a recent study that noted “finding employees to fill resident and visitor service jobs necessary to maintain a community will likely become even more challenging. Incoming location-neutral workers will not be filling local jobs and
will outcompete local workers for housing. This hurts the ability for local businesses to find, keep, and attract employees, lowering the level and quality of services they can provide to residents and visitors alike. This has been a struggle for resort communities for years; and is primed to get worse, at least in the near term.”

Lee said, “I think our community has a lot to be proud of. We’re certainly struggling, but I also think that the continued growth of the rent-by-owner market has removed some of the employee housing, and we’re really feeling that.”

Others are noticing it, too, like a group 18 students from San Francisco who reached out to City Councilman Skippy Mesirow to talk about housing-wage disparity and poverty. Mesirow told his colleagues on City Council, at last week’s work session, that he called around and could not find a restaurant or venue that could host the group because they did not the staff power to accommodate them.

Those stories have become routine of late, but employers are hopeful the trend will start to reverse in September with the elimination of the $300 weekly supplements to unemployment insurance benefits to Colorado residents via the federal government. And the pool of seasonal guest worker visas, which helps employers fill seasonal jobs with foreign workers, is supposed to expand in August.

Special beer dinners at the Limelight Hotel in Snowmass Village are also anticipated to return after the postponement of two June events because of a staff shortage in the kitchen.

“The good news is they’re bringing it back August. 4,” said Meaghan Lynch, spokeswoman for Limelight Hotels, owned by Aspen Skiing Co. “That’s when we get the J-1” visas, which are part of a program that makes international workers available for seasonal work.

There also were signs of more people taking work in Pitkin County in June, according to the latest jobs report from the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment.

In June, the jobless rate slipped to 6.7% from 8.5% in May, which was the state’s second highest that month but also when the local ski areas were closed.

The overall unemployment rate in Colorado was 6.2% in June, higher than the national average of 5.9%

With a workforce of 14,811 people, Pitkin County also had 988 advertised job openings in June, while employees made an average weekly wage of $1,341, according to the state labor department. The weekly wage was eighth highest among Colorado’s 64 counties last month — Broomfield County was first ($47.95 per hour), Denver County was second ($41.90) and Boulder County third ($41.75).

To improve employee retention and recruiting, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board of directors last week approved a collective bargaining agreement with the bus drivers’ union that will increase the payroll by $515,000 this year, with wage increases over the next three-and-a-half year period.

“The increase in wages in July 2021 should greatly enhance RFTA’s Bus Operator recruitment and retention efforts this summer and heading into the 2021-22 winter season,” said a RFTA staff overview of the agreement. “The increase should improve Bus Operator morale at a time when a boost is needed,” according to a RFTA staff memo concerning the agreement. “The increase should improve Bus Operator morale at a time when a boost is needed.”

Starting pay also was increased from $21.08 to $23.51. The state minimum wage is $12.32 and $9.30 for workers who rely on tips.

David Meeker, who runs the Aspen security firm Specialized Protective Services, has been trying to find employees to work private and public events, as well as other jobs that require security personnel.

“I’ve turned away around $30,000 to $50,000 of work this summer, just because of the demands,” he said.

“It’s hard to find helpers and people that want to work,” said Meeker, noting that “some people have made a lot of money on unemployment or are still getting a lot of unemployment, and it’s hard to find good, qualified security people in the valley, but there are some.”

Other employers are having better success on the labor front, partly because of the work they do and the stability they provide.

“We have had zero turnover,” Gabe Muething, paramedic and director of the Aspen Ambulance District, told Aspen Valley Hospital’s board of directors during a presentation at their most recent monthly meeting held Monday.

“We haven’t had to hire a new full-time employee in about six years,” he said. “We increased our staffing last year a little bit to handle some increased volume, but beyond that we haven’t had to hire anybody else.”

The average lifespan of a paramedic is five years, according to Muething, who added that “we actually have employees with 35 years on the job.”