Working through Aspen’s labor issues: It’s a ‘constant struggle’ each season for local employers

Rich Burkley, Aspen Skiing Co.'s vice president of strategic and business developement, chats with those skiers and riders who were at the front of the Silver Queen Gondola line Saturday morning before Aspen Mountain opened.
David Krause / The Aspen Times

The lifts are spinning, the snow is falling and the 2019-20 ski season is underway, but local employers are still scrambling to fill the necessary positions to provide a top-notch level of service and uphold the reputation that has garnered Aspen-Snowmass the ranking of the No. 1 resort in the West.

It’s a tricky business these days as cultural exchange visas that enable international seasonal workers to come to Aspen are more challenging to acquire and the local housing inventory continues to shrink.

“The new normal is being understaffed,” Ryan Sweeney, owner of Ryno’s Pub and Pizzeria and Silver City Saloon, who employs around 40 people between the two bars, said last week.

Judging from “help wanted” signs plastered on windows of retail shops across town and employment websites like Indeed, there are hundreds of positions to be filled from budtenders at pot shops to airline workers to concierges and bell men at local lodges, and everything in between.

Sweeney, who like many employers in Aspen relies on getting seasonal employees through the J-1 visa cultural visitor exchange program, said his applications were denied last month with no explanation.

“I had eight people lined up,” he said. “They had housing and they had flights.”

CCUSA, a sponsor of J-1 program, wrote in an email to Sweeney that the agency was experiencing a shortage of visas.

Jim Laing, who oversees human resources for Aspen Skiing Co., the area’s largest employer, said it’s getting more difficult to obtain visas, but the company has been able to stay on it.

“Earlier this year there was a very big concern about the availability of J-1 visas, so we worked twice as hard to get them this year,” he said, adding Skico is in a better position in terms of staffing than it has been in the past five years, and some departments are as much as 20% ahead of the same time last year.

He said last week that nearly 1,400 offers have been extended so far this year.

“A lot of offers are out there but the question is, is everybody going to show up?” Laing said, noting that a trolling of the internet will show a lack of affordable housing available for prospective employees. “We hope they’ll start showing up in December.”

A cultural exchange of people power

About 20% of Skico’s guests are international, so it is the company’s goal to have employees who mirror the guest demographic of whatever country they are from.

Company-wide, Skico has about 400 J-1 visas, which is not very much when considering it employs between 4,000 and 4,500 people during peak times.

But Skico holds the lion’s share for sure. The Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of Private Sector Exchange, which designates sponsors to conduct exchange programs, issued 325 for the 81611 zip code last year, according to the state department.

It won’t be known until 2020 how many have been issued for this year, but 2018 was the most given to the Aspen area in the past five years, according to data provided by the state department.

Laing said it varies every year, and it is based on supply and demand.

“J-1s are highly correlated to the economy and political climate,” he said.

On its website, CCSUA referenced a Wall Street Journal story that said the current administration is considering cuts to the J-1 program as it reviews U.S. immigration rules to “ensure that the interests of domestic workers are protected.”

According to the state department, nothing has changed about how it implements or administers the visitor exchange program.

Despite the fact that he didn’t get any designated J-1 workers, Sweeney said he has been able to cobble together a staff for the season through former employees and Skico workers who need a second job.

Every year it seems more daunting to recruit workers, Sweeney noted.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” he said. “We are reaching a breaking point in this town. … It’s getting really bad.”

Aspen’s open labor market

Sweeney isn’t alone in the struggle to find workers.

Tony DiLucia, general manager of the Hotel Jerome, said while he feels pretty good going into the winter season, it takes a ton of effort to get fully staffed at around 240 employees.

“It’s like survival,” he said, adding that when the hotel runs short of workers it makes it harder on the current staff, which has to cover more shifts and work in different departments.

The hotel has an advantage in that it has a lot of returning employees, or full-time workers who stay on throughout the year, according to DiLucia.

Craig Cordts-Pearce, who owns four restaurants in Aspen and employs around 150 employees, said the key to survival is long-term employees.

“We’ve got such great employee retention, and I’m lucky to be in that situation,” he said, adding that a few key positions have been filled by the same people for 13 or 14 years.

But the real challenge is to find solid employees who have housing.

“We are constantly looking for good people,” Cordts-Pearce said. “We always have to fill gaps.”

David Clark, manager at Clark’s Market, said the locally owned business relies on the cultural visitor exchange program to complement the tenured staff in the grocery store.

“Entry-level positions have been hard to fill so we rely on the J-1 program because it’s hard to recruit locally,” Clark said, noting that 85 employees are on the payroll, and staff levels will increase by 11 people during Christmas week.

At just about every turn in the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport people can notice a lack of employees, said John Kinney, director of the facility.

“It’s a constant struggle not just for the airport but also the airlines, the TSA and even the security company that we are negotiating with now,” he said. “We are in a perpetual hiring mode 10 out of 12 months of the year.”

Kinney said it is hard no matter whether it is filling an entry level spot or management position that pays around $100,000 a year.

“The cost of living is so high that the airport loses a lot of people to other places where it’s cheaper to live,” Kinney said. “There is a real pause for people to come here.”

Aspen’s tight housing market

Employers blamed the lack of housing as the most critical issue affecting their staffing levels.

They all agreed that gone are the days when a ski bum could show up in town and land a place to live.

Condos and apartments that used to be rented to seasonal or year-round residents are now used for short-term rentals for tourists so the inventory has shrunk significantly, Sweeney noted.

Some employers have their own apartments, or access to affordable places so they can house some of their seasonal or key staff.

The Hotel Jerome has about 40 beds, Clark’s has a few places in Snowmass Village and access to the Marolt seasonal housing complex.

“More housing is needed because finding seasonal staff is hard,” Clark said. “When you do find good people you do everything in your power to keep them.”

Skico has a total of around 800 beds and is building more in Willits in Basalt, according to Laing.

“Seasonal housing is critical and I like to think that we’ve helped a bit,” he said, explaining it’s a difficult sell in some neighborhoods to build short-term rentals. “I know there is a reluctance to look at seasonal housing.”

But the concept is slowly coming into the local conversation.

Colorado Mountain College near the Aspen Business Center is in the initial stages of looking at building dormitory-style housing, and there is pushback from nearby residents in the North Forty subdivision.

The city of Aspen is looking at building a few hundred units down the street on land it owns near the ABC and at Burlingame Ranch, across from Buttermilk Ski Area.

But it’s not enough, and some community leaders believe there’s not adequate political will to address housing in a meaningful and impactful way.

“If this is such a public enemy No. 1, I don’t understand why we don’t throw some serious solutions and investment to this issue,” Kinney said. “It’s perplexing.”

Laing said Skico has had conversations about being part of a housing co-op in which other local employers could buy in on a project to house their own employees.

“If you could solve the seasonal problem, then it helps in recruiting,” he said. “If we don’t take care of it, it’s not going to take care of itself.”