Year in Review: Labor pains hit Aspen as housing options dwindled
For the past 10 days, The Aspen Times has been examining the issues and news events that defined the Aspen-area community in 2021 while also turning the lens to next year and what to watch for. Our 10-part series ends with this final installment on the labor crunch in our community. To read more on how the pandemic’s tentacles have and will continue to dip into our lives — skiing, tourism, development, mental health, labor shortages, business closings, housing shortages, a real estate boom, entertainment — go to AspenTimes.com/local.
Need a job? Welcome to Aspen. Need housing? Better turn around.
Last year, 2021, will go down as a year where local employers and the rest of the country were hamstrung by the Great Resignation, the term popularized to describe the flood of workers leaving their jobs as part of the global pandemic’s fallout.
Local service and hospitality sectors have felt the pinch. As of Sunday, there were 1,027 job openings in Pitkin County advertised online, with 187 of those being salaried positions, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment.
The data showed 556 of the vacancies in customer service and another 168 jobs with host/hostessing skills.
Auberge Resorts (Hotel Jerome) was advertising for 42 jobs, the St. Regis Aspen Resort listed 38, Davidson Hospitality had 36, 50 Eggs (Chica) had 22, and Destination Residences Snowmass had 18, according to the labor department.
The job openings are also needed to keep up with increased business activity.
Year-to-date retail sales in Aspen through October — the latest month available — totaled $824.1 million, outpacing the first 10 months of 2020 by 30.4% and the same period in 2019 by 23.2%, according a tax consumption report the city released in December.
“As a result of the strong return to demand for leisure and hospitality services, job openings have spiked as employers attempt to hire workers,” said the 2022 Colorado Business Economic Outlook, which was released by the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado in December. “However … health risks, low wages, etc. … have decreased the number of employees in the leisure and hospitality labor force, thus causing a supply of labor that lags the elevated demand for employees.”
Aspen Skiing Co. had the most overall openings listed with 164, according to the labor department.
“We made it through the holidays with the staffing levels we had,” said Jeff Hanle, Skico’s director of communications. “Everybody worked their butts off to get things done. I don’t know how many people were working on the front line, but pretty much no one was going to the office during the holidays. We had executive teams trained on the lifts.”
The ample snowfall “set us up for a strong season,” he said.
“It’s been a tough push for everybody, but we’re out on the other side, but the virus is still around,” said Hanle, adding Skico’s staff is nearly 100% vaccinated, along with some exemptions. Masks also are required of people indoors while they are not dining and also on the gondolas. Face-coverings are required now in lines waiting for the Silver Queen and Snowmass gondolas but not in the other lift lines.
Skico announced in November it was raising its entry-level hourly wage to $17; Colorado’s new minimum wage of $12.56 started Jan. 1. Skico also has workforce housing for 1,000 of its 4,000 employees.
Data shows that Pitkin County’s non-seasonally adjusted labor force has been flat, based on a workforce of 11,133 in June, then 11,196 in July, 10,977 in August, 10,646 in October and 10,805 in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In November 2020, the county’s workforce had a count of 10,874, a figure also not seasonally adjusted.
As for pay, Pitkin County’s average hourly wage of $30.10 was below the state average of $32.08, translating to an annual average wage of $62,608 for county residents and $66,716 for all of Colorado, according to the department. Those annual wages were based on a 40-hour workweek and from the second quarter of 2021, the most recent quarter available for that type of data.
Even so, Pitkin County’s average hourly pay was the seventh highest overall in the state and tops among ski-resort counties.
Last year saw employers offering bonuses to new employees and also referral bonuses, but attracting workers was challenging because of the pronounced housing scarcity for Aspen’s labor force. Aspen City Council, reasoning that it needs time to better understand the housing situation to help it shape policy, in December passed a moratorium stopping applications for short-term rentals and residential development.
“It seems unlikely that prices will correct to the extent that year-round residents will be able to purchase market homes or compete with part-time renters and newcomers for rental housing,” said the Mountain Migration Report. Compiled by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, the report examined the pandemic’s effect on housing and services in mountain-resort communities, including Aspen, Snowmass and greater Pitkin County.
That report came out in June and said high-level and highly compensated employees and executives no longer must work where their companies are located, and they can work remotely instead — like in resort towns. The trend had been underway before the pandemic struck in March 2020, after which it “rapidly accelerated,” the report said.
The remote workers “outcompete local workers for housing,” the report said. “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. Businesses, existing residents, and communities may face a tough transition in the years ahead.”
Retirements, raising children, health reasons, career changes, burnout, higher job selectivity or wanting better pay also have fueled the Great Migration trend. Yet what reports and data don’t show are the stresses of working in customer service in towns like Aspen, with demanding clientele paying top dollar for services.
That issue arose at a Tourism Town Hall put on in October by Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
Speaker Frank Cuypers, chief strategist with Destination Tank, which is helping ACRA with its destination marketing plan, said the community should be clear with visitors about the art of mutual respect.
“Respect your local people and if you don’t, we might have a problem,” he said at the event. “Because that’s our value and we respect these people.”