Pandemic’s labor pains taking toll on ski and mountain towns

During call with Colorado Sen. Bennet, officials talk about struggles with workforce

Leaders from mountain and ski towns on the Western Slope told Sen. Michael Bennet on Friday the Trump administration’s extended ban on visas for immigrant employees through the end of March will only exacerbate the pandemic-spurred worker shortage.

“I want to put an exclamation point on getting (rid of) the executive order that prohibits international workers using work visas,” said Melanie Mills, executive director of Colorado Ski Country, which is the marketing arm for a contingent of ski-area operators in the state, including Aspen Skiing Co. “We need to get that withdrawn as soon as possible in the new administration.”

Mills was part of a group of panelists who updated the Democrat senator on how they are managing the pandemic and the challenges dogging them under the state’s Orange and Red public-health phases.

The group met virtually a day after President Donald Trump issued a proclamation Thursday extending the visa restrictions on those including J-1 and H-2B workers; the ban was first installed in April and expanded in June. Resorts have typically hired foreign temporary workers to beef up staff during the winter and summer seasons, but between the pandemic and travel and immigration bans, hiring is getting increasingly difficult for ski areas and other employers.

“The pandemic has been a huge challenge for Summit County,” said Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, who is leaving office this month because of term limits and will become executive director of Counties & Commissioners Acting Together. “We went from a county that had one the lowest unemployment rates in the entire nation to the county that has the second highest unemployment rate in all of Colorado because of this pandemic.”

In Pitkin County, 10.2% of its workforce was unemployed in November, making its jobless rates one of the state’s highest that month, according to the Colorado Department of Labor.

As well, an increase in full-time residents moving to the area has siphoned away workers from the ski industry, said Skico CEO Mike Kaplan. Aspen alone had $2.6 billion home sales in 2020 and Pitkin County had total sales volume of nearly $3.2 billion last year.

“We’re short on staff, and when you have these second homes more occupied, they are hiring more people, property managers, and that really is a double-whammy,“ he said. ”That’s a big hit.“

Likewise, the pandemic’s stressors have greatly impacted the Latino workforce, said Jasmin Ramirez, program coordinator for Voces Unidas, a Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit that assists Latinos living in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties.

Many of them have to work because they have no other choice, she said.

“The front-line workers are part of the students’ families in my district,” said Ramirez, also an elected board member of the Roaring Fork School District, noting “they are afraid to work but need to work, especially when aid is so lacking in our community.”

Many of the workers have a one-way commute of an hour to the ski towns in which they work, she said. Some of their jobs are in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and residences, she said.

Yet Latinos in the area aren’t getting updated information on COVID-19, including details on vaccinations, like the rest of the population is receiving, she said.

“Many governments still do not have a plan for how they are going to get the vaccine out to essential workers and how they will notify workers that are essential,” she said. “Our Latino community should depend on government to effectively reach us, especially during the pandemic.”

Employee morale and stress is mounting because of the pandemic, panelists said. Not helping is that certain groups aren’t considered front-line workers eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, said Steamboat Springs restaurant owner Scott Engelman, also board chair of Colorado Restaurant Association.

“Why the restaurant industry has been excluded from this is mind-boggling to me,” he said.

David Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area in Pagosa Springs, said pandemic fatigue is spreading among his staff.

“The big challenge is being told by certain components of our guests that we’re not taking the pandemic seriously,” Pitcher said. “Having my staff scrutinized every month, it’s taken a toll on morale and it’s caused some employees to throw in the sponge.”

Because some workers also are opting to go on unemployment and not work, it’s becoming harder to hire for positions, he said.

Wolf Creek employees, he said, “try to lead by example but it’s a dichotomy that’s really hard for everybody. … We get challenged for not taking it seriously and yet we do. And I believe our outdoor recreation is important to a lot of families. A lot of people are having a good time and getting some release from the stress, but it’s certainly challenging.”

The second round of stimulus checks and Payroll Protection Program are appreciated, the panelists said, but they only go so far.

“Our beacon of hope stretches out to December 2021,” Engelman said. “Obviously we got a PPP second round, which was fantastic but also short-bridged. Maybe into quarter two or the beginning of quarter three, we will need more cash support at the federal level.”

Indoor dining capacity of 25% to 50% is not built to last, he said.

“It’s not really viable here in Routt County, other counties throughout the mountain communities and throughout the state, for that matter,” he said.

Bennet said he is looking forward to the new administration under President Joe Biden. His inauguration day is Jan. 20.

“This year has been … between the attacks on our democracy, the pandemic, the devastation of the wildfire season over the last 10 months … it has hit our communities and mountain communities in a way we never could have imagined,” Bennet said.