Businesses raise wages, offer perks to try to combat labor shortage

Many employers believe the issue is bigger than they can tackle on their own

Pedestrians walk toward Cabin Fever on South Main Street in Breckenridge in August 2020. Cabin Fever is just one business offering incentives to attract and retain workers.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

Limiting the number of short-term rental applications, turning hotels into housing, building additional affordable apartments — these strategies and more have all been tossed around as possible solutions to help mitigate the county’s lack of workforce housing, which in turn has contributed to a labor shortage. Another suggestion by community members is for businesses to raise wages to help balance the high cost of living in Summit County.

Though this strategy might seem appealing on the surface, Sandy Struve said it’s not that simple. Struve owns multiple Breckenridge shops including The Christmas Store, Mountain Tees and Cabin Fever.

“It’s not coming out of their pockets,” Struve said about people who suggest raising wages. “Businesses do what they have to do. If we have to raise wages more, that makes our product cost more to the consumer. People have to realize that when they say to raise wages, the end product is going to cost you more.”

The lack of attainable housing in Summit County has caused a severe labor shortage, forcing many businesses to operate on limited hours or days. In an effort to attract and retain talent, business owners like Struve are offering signing bonuses, ski passes, discounts, flexible schedules, parking passes and more.

Struve has even gone so far as renting out a property in Breckenridge, which she subsidizes so that two of her full-time employees have stable living quarters.

“We’ve raised our wages, and we’re also in the process of renting housing to put employees in,” Struve said. “We’re willing to rent the housing, take the hit and make it affordable for the employee. Other than that, we offer some benefits like health insurance, ski passes, discounts.”

Duke Bradford, owner of Peak 1 Express, also offers housing to his employees. Bradford said he increased wages in the spring by 20% to 25% depending on the position and is now offering incentives to draw in applications for positions that are most difficult to fill. These incentives include bonuses ranging from $300 to $500, passes to ski resorts and recreational centers, family and friend discounts and more.

Bradford said, in general, he believes businesses should raise wages to support employees but that doing so isn’t going to mitigate the widespread housing issue.

“It’s not going to address the housing issue,” Bradford said. “This problem lies somewhere else. I’ll continue to meet the demands of my staff to make ends meet. I don’t see that solving the housing problem. I think that’s a bigger issue.”

Bradford noted that when businesses, including his, increase wages, that impacts the company’s bottom line and could be reflected in increased prices. Bradford said he’s had to increase prices in the past and that it’s likely to happen again in the future due to inflation.

“We’re struggling to keep pace,” Bradford said. “Eventually, this all gets passed on to the consumer, but that takes time. We can’t suddenly change our prices or make our prices retroactive, so we’ll take a hit in the short run, but eventually (prices) will have to increase.”

Struve said the last time she raised wages for her employees was a couple of years ago when she upped her hourly rate from $14 to $16 an hour. She noted the same thing as Bradford: When she has to raise wages, that money has to come from somewhere and could be reflected in her products’ prices. It also doesn’t help that supply-chain issues are disrupting operations, too.

“The vendors are raising their prices, too,” Struve said. “It’s a cycle.”

Dillon Dam Brewery in Dillon is another business in the county trying to appeal to potential workers. The restaurant is advertising $21 per hour for line cooks and promises a $250 signing bonus, plus another $250 bonus after a 60-day review.

Cornflower Boutique in Frisco is also offering monthly bonuses and flexible schedules to new hires in addition to an employee clothing discount.

All of these businesses are fairly small and are doing what they can to appeal to potential workers. But the larger the business, the larger the investment it is to make an impactful difference in employees’ pay.

Peak 1 Express employs about 150 staff members between its Breckenridge and Vail locations in addition to owning AVA Rafting and Zipline. Struve said she employs 16 staff members between her three shops. These operations are fairly small compared to Vail Resorts, one of the largest employers in the county.

In early June, Vail Resorts announced it was investing more in employee wages, including a $15 minimum wage at several of its resorts, including Keystone Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort. The company also plans to “adjust earnings for hourly employees who earn just above minimum wage to account for the raise across its properties.”

In addition to the wage increases, Vail Resorts also offers its employees six counseling sessions at no additional cost, an employee ski pass, daily $5 meals, food and drink discounts, and lodging and retail discounts.

Vail officials are calling the move the company’s “largest investment” in the upcoming winter season.

“Vail Resorts is committed to continuously investing in all parts of the employee experience,” Vail spokesperson Loryn Roberson wrote in an email. “We announced the decision to raise our minimum wage to $15 (an) hour in June based on our annual process of assessing wages and benefits. Coming out of the uncertainty of last winter season, we are thrilled to be able to invest in our employees with structural wage increases and through restoring our annual merit process.”

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