Snowmass Town Council grapples with area-wide labor issues

Leaders concerned current workforce shortage could have long-term impacts on town character

A “help wanted” sign hangs outside of Taste of Philly on the Snowmass Village Mall as people dine outside at local restaurants on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Widespread labor pains throughout the valley are putting businesses between a rock and a hard place with employees in limited supply and overwhelming demand. The way Snowmass Village Town Councilman Bob Sirkus sees it, the impact goes well beyond shorter business hours or canceled events.

“It’s literally changing the face of our communities, the way things are happening now between the number of visitors that we’re getting, the issues with employees, the lack of housing — not just workforce housing but any housing in the entire valley. I’m really concerned that we are going to be in a position where either our workforce just succumbs to stress and leaves the valley or other things,” Sirkus said at a regular meeting July 19.

The dire straits in the valley prompted an extensive council conversation about workforce issues that the town’s leaders fear will have a lasting impact on the character of Snowmass Village, members expressed during council reports and actions.

“We need to save everybody who’s working in the town right now and make sure they know that they’re appreciated and we can’t afford to lose anybody, because there’s nobody out there that’s going to replace them,” Councilman Tom Goode said.

The town government is preparing to show that appreciation to its employees — and stay competitive in the tighter-than-tight labor market — with a 4% boost in the merit pool and 1% increase in retirement benefits thanks to sales tax revenue that was much higher than expected, according to town manager Clint Kinney.

The town aims to recruit staffers with “the whole package,” and the bump in retirement benefits is part of that — especially so because, unlike workers in the private sector, government employees in Snowmass Village (and many other municipalities) don’t receive Social Security benefits, said human resources director Kathy Fry.

It wasn’t included in the initial 2021 budget because town number-crunchers erred ultra conservative on revenue projections amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kinney said.

But it’s not just the town government that needs employees; Snowmass Village businesses are feeling the pinch as much as anywhere else in the valley. Part of that stems from a one-two punch of increased visitation on one hand and an ever-present shortage of affordable housing on the other in a number of high-altitude, outdoor-oriented areas, according to a “Mountain Migration” study in June.

The town’s tourism industry is a “double-edged sword,” Goode noted.

“You want to market the place to get your tax dollars,” Goode said. “On the same token, you can’t fulfill everybody’s dream of coming to this particular resort, whether it’s here, or where, or whatever, because they can’t go anywhere — they can’t get a reservation for dinner, they can’t get their rooms cleaned.”

And private sector businesses don’t have that sales tax windfall to work with when they’re hiring. The shortage of workers is coming at an immense cost of emotional and physical stress among other local employers struggling to stay staffed and the local employees stretched thin by the high demand for services.

“Those who can’t deal with the stress are going to suffer,” Sirkus said. “We thought we had mental health problems during COVID. Potentially, this could be a lot worse.”

The strain isn’t just burdening workers; it’s making the very experience of being a tourist more challenging, too. Those limited hours and canceled events from businesses short on workers make it harder for visitors to have the experiences they come here to have, whether that’s a dinner reservation that’s harder to come by in town or an overnight Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness experience that will soon come with required permits, reservations and fees.

“These are, to me, unacceptable changes that are required because of the current popularity of this valley, and what I really don’t want to see is this place becoming so popular that it is no longer this place,” Sirkus said.

Sirkus floated the idea of reducing the town’s marketing budget because Snowmass already has enough visitation and name recognition without extra efforts to draw new visitors to the area. A similar conversation took place in an Aspen City Council work session last week, and the Mountain Migration report likewise suggested some resort towns pump the brakes on recruiting any more tourists to already-packed destinations.

Development in the town is another concern — especially so in Base Village, where developers are already thinking about installing a viewing platform on the future site of Building 12 while Building 11 (Electric Pass Lodge) is just beginning construction, according to a resolution that’s on the Planning Commission agenda for a meeting Wednesday.

“Where are we going to find the workers to cover these things? It really distresses me,” Sirkus said.

Snowmass is hardly alone in weighing the complicated dynamics of balancing workforce needs with tourism revenue and there isn’t a “silver bullet,” Mayor Bill Madsen noted.

That won’t stop council from looking for solutions, though; council members requested a full two-hour work session to be devoted to discussing issues of shifting mountain town culture and workforce challenges at a date yet to be determined — “sooner rather than later,” Councilwoman Alyssa Shenk said.