Transient workforce: How high turnover affects the workplace and the mental health of hourly wage workers

Lars Shirey, 63, poses for a portrait in front of his truck, which serves as his residence, while parked at The Church at Agape Outpost in Breckenridge on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. Shirey — who has dubbed his truck camper LOLA, for Life of Lars Adventures — is one of 10 individuals who has taken advantage of the Unsheltered in Summit program, which provides a safe place to park and sleep in a vehicle overnight.
Jason Connolly/For the Summit Daily News

DILLON — Plenty of Summit County’s seasonal workers come to the mountains to live the ski bum lifestyle for a winter or two before going on their way. But not everyone who ends up leaving necessarily wants to, and the transient nature of the county’s workforce takes a toll on the mental health of those working to set down roots in the community.

The pandemic hasn’t helped. The total workforce has decreased by about 23% from June to October, according to an economic impact survey conducted by the Summit Chamber of Commerce and the Summit Prosperity Initiative. Corry Mihm, project manager for the Prosperity Initiative, wrote in an email that much of the loss could be among seasonal workers.

In the ski industry, some people make a career out of their once-seasonal jobs by climbing the corporate ladder. But by design, a segment of the seasonal workforce leaves after a one or two years. Kelly Renoux, director of Employee Experience at Copper Mountain Resort, explained that turnover is part of the seasonal business. The resort rehires about one-third of its staff every season with the remaining two-thirds of job openings filled by new employees. For positions like lift operations, for example, Renoux said some turnover is desired because Copper wants people who are new and excited about the work. In positions like vehicle maintenance, however, the resort doesn’t want as much turnover.

“You want as many people to come back as possible because it reduces training costs, and they already know the resort,” Renoux said. “They’re passionate, and they bring people back. But the nature of the seasonal business is we’re not able to offer it year over year, and sometimes people just get tired of doing the seasonal business year after year, and they want to do something more year-round.”

The majority of the workforce for Keystone Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort also is seasonal due to peak demand during the winter season, spokesperson Loryn Roberson wrote in an email.

But some ski area employees buck that trend and decide to stick around for the lifestyle. Zac Calden, a lift operator at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area who has opted to stay at the ski area for the past few years, said seasonal turnover often happens during the summer, when people can’t find a job they like and move elsewhere. Calden said he has stayed because of the family atmosphere at A-Basin and the snowboarding lifestyle.

“I work a lot just because I love being up there, and I’m up there every day anyway in the winter,” Calden said. “If I’m off, I’m up there riding, so if they need a couple hours from me, I’m like, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ I love the place, so I don’t do much outside of snowboarding. That is my life, so work-life is pretty balanced.”

Calden said he stays in Summit County and at A-Basin because he’d miss the area if he moved elsewhere, work treats him well and he enjoys the natural environment. He also hopes to move up the chain of command at A-Basin. Calden, who is in his 30s, said he wants to stay put and not start his life again somewhere new.

Phil Armstrong, owner of Aurum Food & Wine in Breckenridge, said hiring quality employees is difficult in Summit County.
Photo by Elaine Collins

High turnover

Phil Armstrong — owner of Destination Hospitality, which includes Aurum Food & Wine in Breckenridge — said he works to attract people who are serious about cooking, but that it’s difficult in Summit County. He said he tries to position his businesses as one of the best places to work in the industry by paying wages at the top of the market and creating opportunities for people to move up within the company.

Prosperity Disparity
Prosperity Disparity is a three-part series by the Summit Daily News highlighting the struggles of the hourly wage workforce.

Nov. 16
Making ends meet: How Summit County’s hourly wage workers patch together a tight budget

Nov. 23
Housing crunch: Summit County’s workforce is increasingly being pushed out by second-home owners

Nov. 30
Transient workforce: How high turnover affects the workplace and the mental health of seasonal workers

“We try to position ourselves as, ‘Look, if you want to be the cook that drinks a bunch of beers and does a bunch of coke and doesn’t really give a shit about the job, we’re not that restaurant. We’re the restaurant where you’re going to learn about food. You’re going to learn about wine. You’re going to take what you’re doing seriously even if it’s for a season. You’re going to be forced to conform to our professional environment,’” Armstrong said. “And that doesn’t work for a lot of people.”

High turnover is an issue, and people who are serious about the industry typically gravitate toward urban markets rather than mountain towns, Armstrong said, because it’s hard to make a living in a mountain town while working in the service industry. He said there is an oversaturation of restaurants in Summit County’s tourism-based economy, which has divided the labor pool, making it even more challenging to find quality employees.

Family & Intercultural Resource Center Executive Director Brianne Snow said it’s hard to recruit and retain qualified employees in the nonprofit sector, as well. She said the resource center constantly has open positions and has lost candidates after they research the cost of living. The nonprofit pays between $18 and $22 an hour for an entry-level position.

“We need qualified people that have degrees and experience, and we can’t recruit anyone to live in this community,” Snow said. “No one will move here.”

Snow added that some people who have lived in the county for a while become weary of trying to piece together a budget and get to a point in their mid-30s when they decide to leave. She also said productivity in the workplace becomes a problem when people are worrying about meeting basic needs, such as how to feed their children.

Ellette Dusek poses for a photo during her shift at Red Mountain Grill in Dillon on Nov. 7. She said her experience is that expectations are lower for service-industry workers in Summit County and there’s no focus on team building.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Ellette Dusek, who moved to Summit County in April as a server after working at Snooze in Denver, said she has struggled with the lack of professionalism in Summit County.

“I moved up here, and I absolutely love it; it’s just the work situation is rough,” said Dusek, who recently left her job at Timberline Craft Kitchen and Cocktails to work at Red Mountain Grill. “These organized, structured ways that I have of systematically doing things as a server aren’t a thing up here. It’s just like chaos. They just want to get the job done, and it doesn’t really matter (how).”

Dusek said inconsistent income due to seasonal workflow changes also has been difficult to adjust to. She said her experience is that expectations are lower for service-industry workers in Summit County, and there’s no focus on team building, which she attributes to employees not taking their jobs seriously.

While Dusek believes the mountain lifestyle contributes to the lack of professionalism, managers and owners perpetuate the problem by assuming employees will quickly leave, she said. As someone who does want to be a loyal employee, Dusek said she feels cheated. Due to the party culture, Dusek said people in their 20s are looked down on in Summit County, and she has to go above and beyond to prove that she’s responsible despite her age.

Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of Building Hope Summit County, discusses mental health care in September 2019. She said the long Summit County winters can negatively affect mental health.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Mental health problems

Summit County’s party lifestyle and transient nature contribute to the mental health struggles of area workers. The Family & Intercultural Resource Center and Building Hope Summit County partner to offer resources to residents and connect people to mental health care.

Snow said the nonprofit sees a lot of people struggling with their mental health, from young people in their 20s who are trying to piece their lives together to parents with multiple children.

“To have that constant pressure to pay your rent and pay child care and afford your health care and get food on the table and then take a little time out for your own self to make sure that your mental health is good, is just not happening,” Snow said.

She added that the transient nature of the community can feel very isolating. Many Summit County residents don’t have extended family around, so they don’t receive the same familial support that might traditionally be found elsewhere. Not having family around can be even more difficult throughout the holidays, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as people are told not to gather with anyone outside of their household.

Snow said the center sees a lot of people in crisis.

“A lot of people walk in the door because it’s their last hope before they do something that can’t be taken back,” Snow said.

Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of Building Hope, described the “paradise paradox,” where people come to live in Summit County because they love the mountains and think it will solve all of their problems. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case, and the letdown can exacerbate their issues.

“A lot of us have challenges in our lives, and we think that if we go and live in this beautiful place that everything will be better,” McAtamney said. “And when they get here — because of the lack of housing, because of the cost of living, because of the wage structure — not only did it not get better, but it got worse.”

McAtamney said the problem is often worsened by the fact that the individual left their traditional support system and can become isolated in a new community. She added that the long Summit County winters can negatively affect mental health.

“There’s this paradox where, ‘Now, I feel guilty because I’m not feeling better, and here I am living in this place that’s so beautiful that I always wanted to be, and it still sucks. So why am I hurting so much right now?’” McAtamney said. “And think about the weight of that on you as a person.”

McAtamney said financial challenges and friends frequently leaving the community are major triggers for mental health issues. While people come to the mountains to enjoy healing activities like hiking, skiing and generally being outside, there is still the looming uncertainty of being able to pay rent, which takes its toll, McAtamney said. She said that is compounded by the service-industry workforce being surrounded by visitors spending thousands of dollars a day on their vacations.

“You’re just seeing the disparity on a daily basis,” McAtamney said. “The economic structure of this community is just really challenging.”

McAtamney added that people constantly coming and going in a transient community can wear on residents and make them less welcoming to new people, making it hard for the workforce to really settle.

Building Hope’s work centers around making sure people have the vital mental health resources they need. Over the past year, the nonprofit has worked to get more providers credentialed with insurance to increase service accessibility. This year, Building Hope added informal virtual support groups to its list of resources, which also includes community connectedness events, mental health scholarships, connection to therapy and support groups.

During the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring, McAtamney said the first few weeks were very quiet. An increase in requests for mental health services started to pop up in April and May as the quarantine wore on. When the community lost two teenagers to suicide, the need for support skyrocketed. The peak in mental health requests came in June, when McAtamney said the reopening process was a big stressor for people.

“I think COVID has made it harder,” she said. “I think just the uncertainty around jobs and what does the winter look like? Are we going to have visitors here? Are the restaurants going to be able to make it financially? … The uncertainty has exacerbated (mental health issues) even more.”

Moving on

Laura Graham, who now lives in Littleton, previously worked in Summit County as a massage therapist. She moved to the area to pursue work opportunities and for the natural environment. Graham was renting an apartment in Keystone when the pandemic struck. In March, she informed her landlord that she was unemployed due to the shutdown, saying she was unsure whether she could complete the lease. Graham said her landlord was uncooperative, and she had no choice but to move out and live with her parents at 50 years old. Graham’s landlord, Cynthia Kipta, confirmed in an email that she did have a dispute with her tenant, and they reached an impasse despite her best efforts to resolve the dispute.

During her time in Summit County, Graham said she was frustrated by the lack of professional jobs. She also pointed out that the apartments available for rent were often furnished and seasonal, which she said doesn’t suit someone who’s trying to lay down roots. Graham said she chose Summit County for the same reason that many others move to the mountains — to be outside — but didn’t feel welcomed into the community.

Graham said she wanted to make it work but ultimately had to leave.

“I was eagerly waiting for summer,” Graham said. “I was waiting for it to warm up so I could have an additional round of interviews and enjoy what I went up there to enjoy. … I was just surviving it and waiting for spring, so I could make a fresh start of it. And then I could look for a better job and a better apartment at the end of it. That’s what I was thinking.”

Raychel Kelly, founder of Summit County’s Good Bridge Community organization, also left the county during the pandemic. As a former member of Summit County’s working homeless population, Kelly said there weren’t enough resources in the county for her to make it work during the shutdown. She pointed out that there isn’t a homeless shelter in the area.

“Having COVID, I think people on the normal level of society are going to feel the pinch of inconvenience, and that is what our population deals with every day,” Kelly said about Summit County’s hourly wage workforce. “… I just think that engagement of people being inconvenienced right now could be a leadway into the discussion of what our population deals with, and maybe that can be a bridge into some communication.”

Kelly said the pandemic is an excuse for the community and local government to push issues of homelessness to the side. She said she was uncomfortable being homeless in Summit County when the pandemic hit and didn’t have a solid network in the area, so she returned to the Los Angeles area, where she had previously lived for over 25 years. Kelly said she has mixed feelings about her time in Summit County, where she became homeless. She said the county, and the rest of the country, needs to be a place where wages can work for people, where people aren’t spending 50% of their income on housing.

“Ultimately, I think if we want to make any change, we have to stay on the track,” Kelly said about addressing homelessness. “We can’t let COVID or anything else deter us.”

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