What I did on my summer vacation …

Abigail Eagye
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

What happens to 200 employees when a 118-year-old hotel closes for eight months?It’s a question managers at the Hotel Jerome had to tackle when the hotel’s new owners decided to undertake a massive restoration project, scheduled to begin in early April.The problem isn’t as tricky as it seems on first glance. About 100 employees who work in seasonal positions or have temporary visas would be leaving anyway. Subtract 30 managers who will keep working through most of the hiatus. Peel off another 30 employees – mostly housekeepers, kitchen staff and a few folks from the engineering department – who will help with construction during the renovation. And that leaves about 40 workers who will suddenly be jobless next month.

Lyn Byars is one of those who will help with construction during the restoration. As chief engineer, he knows the ins and outs of the building, making him an invaluable asset to the contractors who will be upgrading everything from heating and air-conditioning systems to windows and some electrical and plumbing.Knowing his world would abruptly change did cause some angst for Byars, but he says the hotel’s owners have been “more than fair” in helping people through the transition.The hotel has sponsored résumé-writing classes, a career-planning workshop, interview training and a job fair for employees to find work with other hotels in the valley or at the Broadmoor Hotel, the Jerome’s sister hotel in Colorado Springs. Managers have even arranged for an unemployment consultant to meet with departing employees to help them fill out forms to collect unemployment.The hotel is also offering resigning bonuses of $500 to $2,000 to lure experienced employees back after the break.”How many employers do all that?” Byars queried. “This is going above and beyond reasonable expectations.”

Vinay Muralidharan, of Mumbai, India, has been working at the front desk at the Jerome for eight months. He hopes to transfer to the Broadmoor in the interim, but his temporary work visa expires when the hotel closes in April.The Jerome sponsors Muralidharan’s visa, and Human Resources Director Ann Fitzgerald is working to extend it so he can work at the Broadmoor. He hopes to return to the Jerome in December.”Things are just falling in place,” he said.At the end of one year, Muralidharan’s visa will expire, and he’ll need a new one to return to Aspen, but “I’ll let HR work on that for me,” he said.Pastry chef Heather Campbell and her assistant, Vanessa Noonan, are also headed to Colorado Springs, where, they say, rent is a fraction of what they pay in Aspen.But that’s not the only plus. Campbell and Noonan will have a chance to train with respected pastry chef Remy Funfrock, who is helping the Broadmoor broaden its pastry palate. “It keeps my hands in the dough, so to speak,” Campbell said. “It’s just good prep for the hotel when I come back.”The Jerome will unveil a new restaurant when it reopens, and the pair of pastry chefs is excited about adding their new confectionery creations to the menu.Their only concern during the renovations: What kind of mischief will the Jerome’s ghost be up to in their kitchen? Rumor has it the ghost is the hotel’s former pastry chef, and his haunt is their haunt – the pastry kitchen in the basement of the Victorian hotel.

Where everybody knows your nameMeanwhile, on the ground floor, locals who haunt the J-Bar probably know Norm. No, not that Norm. Norman Dabbs and Josh Whittaker are the J-Bar’s own Sam and Woody – with higher I.Q.s – and for some, the bar won’t be the same without them.Whittaker, whose full-time summer job is with Snowmass parks and trails, usually only works two bar shifts a week during the summer. Losing a season at the Jerome won’t be too disruptive, he said, since he owns his own house and uses the summer shifts more to hold his job than for the income. He’s glad for the break, he said, because it means no doubles, a lot of golf and a lot of biking.Whittaker is more concerned for workers like Dabbs, who will lose his job, his house and his insurance.Dabbs, however, is taking it all in stride. Eight months is a long time, he says, but for a guy with no strings, the future is wide open.”I have no kids, no debt, no life, and now I have no house and no job, so I can do whatever I want,” he joked. “I might just head to the beach.”

He’s serious about the beach part. Dabbs is scoping out options with friends from San Diego to Fiji.Despite losing his job, his house and his insurance, Dabbs said the closure hasn’t really been a hassle.”They gave us so much warning, we’ve had plenty of time to make plans,” he said. “It’s not like we found out yesterday.”Dabbs is excited about the changes to the hotel, but he’s quick to say the J-Bar won’t be that different. “They want to keep everything that’s good about the place,” he said. “They just want to make it better.”Dabbs said he “absolutely” wants to come back for the winter. His message for loyal patrons: “Enjoy the summer, and we’ll see you in December for a beer and a burger.”

Several Jerome employees are getting married overseas, and the closure offers a rare opportunity for friends to leave work at the same time to attend. Jasmine Liddington will spend a month and a half in Thailand training to be an Ashtanga yoga instructor before heading to a co-worker’s wedding in Ireland. If Liddington couldn’t take several months off, it might have taken her much longer to become an instructor – and she wouldn’t have been able to study under a Thai Ashtanga expert.”It’s an amazing opportunity to have that time,” she said.Reservations Manager Manpreet Sidhu will also use the time off work to travel. He and his wife were married in her native Argentina in December, but they’ll take three months over the summer to renew their vows in his home in Punjab, India, and to fulfill Sidhu’s lifelong dream of traveling in Europe and Egypt.”It’s a blessing in disguise, because when else can you take three months off and travel?” Sidhu said.Four of his co-workers will attend the wedding, which would have been impossible if the hotel weren’t shutting down.Like many other employees, Sidhu is excited that the already high-class hotel could be a five-star establishment after the restoration. And in the eight months the hotel is closed, Sidhu is looking forward to doing something he’s never done in his life, something he could never before do in the Jerome’s “polished” environment and likely can never do again once it reopens.Sidhu is going to grow a beard.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is