Summit businesses still struggling to restaff despite 6.4% statewide unemployment rate
Employers say the issue stems from a lack of housing and difficulty finding qualified candidates
With Colorado’s unemployment rate of 6.4%, most would think recruiting talent would be easy, but for businesses like restaurants and lodging properties, that’s not the case.
Take the Dillon Dam Brewery as an example. In an email last week, General Manager Kim Nix said she’s very concerned about finding enough employees to serve a 5,600-square-foot guest area as the county tries to reach level green metrics and eliminate capacity restrictions.
“As we get to open more and more, I am very concerned with staffing,” Nix wrote. “We just are not getting the amount of applications in that we used to. I am hopeful that as things open back up more people will want to move here and will be looking for jobs. But with the rent prices so high, most are having trouble finding places to live.
“A lot of my current staff are ending leases, and they are concerned about finding new places to live also and being able to stay in Summit. We have been trying to hire just one line cook since January and haven’t gotten any applications for that position.”
As Nix mentioned, the issue is compounded by high housing costs. Kristin Keller, general manager at the Frisco Lodge, said she’s had issues recruiting talent since before the pandemic. Since COVID-19, she said it’s been “100 times worse.”
“Housing is definitely the No. 1 issue, I’d say,” Keller said. “I have a hard time even talking with people unless I know that they have secure housing.”
It’s not just the long-term rental housing shortage that’s at play, though. Nix noted that she feels like she’s competing with federal unemployment benefits.
“I think the unemployment, with what they’re getting plus the extra $300 a week that they’re getting, … is probably enough to be somewhat comfortable to wait it out until the right job pops up or they decide, ‘Hey, I need to make more money now,’” Nix said.
This time of year, Nix typically receives applicants from workers who were previously at Keystone Resort or those looking to move to the county for the summer, but that’s not happening. Instead, she’s seen applicants who seemed to not care about the job and were looking to fulfill unemployment requirements, especially over the winter season.
“You could just tell they were just fulfilling their work search requirements for unemployment,” Nix said. “They’d fill out an application in their email, and we’d call, and they’d come or they wouldn’t come. We’d schedule an interview, and they just wouldn’t show.”
Keller has experienced flaky workers too. Right after the $600 federal unemployment benefit ended, she said she hired two promising candidates who lasted only about three weeks before suddenly calling it quits. Just this past Friday, she had two interviews scheduled with potential candidates, both of whom didn’t show.
“That’s what you tend to get is people that might come in, train for a little bit and then … just not show up anymore,” Keller said.
The staffing shortages these businesses are facing aren’t just one or two employees, either. Keller said she has a staff of seven. Typically, the Frisco Lodge operates with a full staff of 13. The same goes for the Dillon Dam Brewery. Nix said she has about 45 employees but would need to double that if her business could open at 100% capacity with no restrictions.
The hardest positions to fill, according to Keller, are housekeepers and innkeepers. For both Dillon Dam Brewery and Breckenridge Distillery, it’s line cooks and chefs that are the most difficult positions to hire.
Ashley Haney, hospitality manager at Breckenridge Distillery, said that is partly because there is a small candidate pool to choose from; not many applicants already have fine dining or culinary arts experience.
Haney said Breckenridge Distillery has only four cooks and that it could use six or seven. To accommodate this need, Haney said front-of-house management are helping with the lunch hour by serving meals, like charcuterie boards and cheese plates, that don’t require culinary experience.
“Everyone is doing their part,” Haney said.
As of Saturday, Breckenridge Distillery had 13 open positions listed on its website, ranging from barbacks to bussers to cooks.
To make up for these lost positions, all three businesses have developed ways to get the work done, whether that means working longer days, trimming down menus or planning to operate at a capacity for which they have the staff. For instance, Keller works 12-hour days five days a week serving breakfast and cleaning rooms, along with her other duties.
To accommodate schedules at Dillon Dam Brewery, Nix said the menu has been changed to include fewer dinner options. If her business is able to operate at an increased capacity and she doesn’t have the staff, she plans to continue operating at reduced capacity until she can staff up.
The same goes for Breckenridge Distillery, which used to offer barbecue lunches before switching to its dinner menu in the evenings. Now the restaurant just offers small plates during the lunch hour, which allows staff other than the cooks to pitch in and help prep and serve food.
As the county continues to work toward its level green goal, both Keller and Nix are concerned about reopening at full capacity.
“If they said tomorrow, ’You can open at 100% capacity, no distancing between tables. Go ahead and get back to pre-COVID operations,’ we couldn’t do it,” Nix said. “There’s no way. Absolutely no way. I don’t have enough managers. I don’t have enough servers. I don’t have enough bartenders.”
Keller said she too was concerned about how the Frisco Lodge would operate at full capacity if she didn’t have the staff necessary to do so.
“I’m definitely concerned just that we’ll have too much work and not enough people to cover that work, but we’ll press on and just continue as much as we can.”
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