Pandemic’s labor pains taking toll on ski and mountain towns |

Pandemic’s labor pains taking toll on ski and mountain towns

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
A Keystone Resort employee stands ready to scan lift passes on opening day at Keystone Resort on Nov. 6.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

ASPEN — Leaders from mountain and ski towns on the Western Slope told Sen. Michael Bennet on Friday that the Trump administration’s extended ban on visas for immigrant employees through the end of March will only exacerbate the pandemic-spurred worker shortage.

“I want to put an exclamation point on getting (rid of) the executive order that prohibits international workers using work visas,” said Melanie Mills, executive director of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association for a contingent of ski-area operators in the state. “We need to get that withdrawn as soon as possible in the new administration.”

Mills was part of a group of panelists who updated the Democratic senator on how they are managing the pandemic and the challenges dogging them under the state’s orange and red COVID-19 dial restrictions.

The group met virtually a day after President Donald Trump issued a proclamation extending the visa restrictions on those including J-1 and H-2B workers. The ban was first installed in April and expanded in June. Resorts typically have hired foreign temporary workers to beef up staff during the winter, but between the pandemic and travel and immigration bans, hiring is getting increasingly difficult for ski areas and other employers.

“The pandemic has been a huge challenge for Summit County,” said Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, who is leaving office this month because of term limits and will become executive director of Counties & Commissioners Acting Together. “We went from a county that had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the entire nation to the county that has the second highest unemployment rate in all of Colorado because of this pandemic.”

In Summit County, 6.8% of the workforce was unemployed in November, making its jobless rate among the state’s highest that month, according to the Colorado Department of Labor.

An increase in full-time residents moving to the area also has made things more difficult for the ski industry, Aspen Skiing Co. CEO Mike Kaplan said. Aspen alone had $2.6 billion in home sales in 2020.

“We’re short on staff, and when you have these second-homes more occupied, they are hiring more people, property managers, and that really is a double-whammy. That’s a big hit,” he said.

Likewise, the pandemic’s stressors have greatly impacted the Latino workforce, said Jasmin Ramirez, program coordinator for Voces Unidas, a Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit that assists Latinos living in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties.

Many of them have to work because they have no other choice, she said.

“They are afraid to work but need to work, especially when aid is so lacking in our community,” Ramirez said.

Many of the workers have a one-way commute of an hour to the ski towns in which they work, she said. Some of their jobs are in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and residences, she said.

Yet Latinos in the area aren’t getting updated information on COVID-19, including details on vaccinations, like the rest of the population is receiving, Ramirez said.

“Many governments still do not have a plan for how they are going to get the vaccine out to essential workers and how they will notify workers that are essential,” Ramirez said. “Our Latino community should depend on government to effectively reach us, especially during the pandemic.”

Stress is mounting because of the pandemic and affecting employee morale, panelists said. Not helping is that certain groups aren’t considered front-line workers eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, said Steamboat Springs restaurant owner Scott Engelman, who is also board chair of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

“Why the restaurant industry has been excluded from this is mind-boggling to me,” he said.

David Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area in Pagosa Springs, said pandemic fatigue is spreading among his staff.

“The big challenge is being told by certain components of our guests that we’re not taking the pandemic seriously,” Pitcher said. “Having my staff scrutinized every month, it’s taken a toll on morale, and it’s caused some employees to throw in the sponge.”

Because some workers also are opting to go on unemployment and not work, it’s becoming harder to hire for positions, he said.

The second round of stimulus checks and Paycheck Protection Program are appreciated, the panelists said, but they go only so far.

“Our beacon of hope stretches out to December 2021,” Engelman said. “Obviously, we got a (Paycheck Protection Program) second round, which was fantastic but also short-bridged. Maybe into quarter two or the beginning of quarter three, we will need more cash support at the federal level.”

Indoor dining capacity of 25% to 50% isn’t built to last, he said.

“It’s not really viable here in Routt County, other counties throughout the mountain communities and throughout the state, for that matter,” he said.

Bennet said he is looking forward to the new administration under President-elect Joe Biden. His inauguration day is Jan. 20.

“This year has been — between the attacks on our democracy, the pandemic, the devastation of the wildfire season over the last 10 months — it has hit our communities and mountain communities in a way we never could have imagined,” he said.

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