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Durango employers get creative to combat labor shortages

Purgatory Resort has fewer staff members; city trying to keep up with park maintenance
Kallen Snow scans lift passes Friday at Purgatory Resort. Snow and her partner built a camping van and are living in it to help reduce expenses. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Durango area employers are struggling to meet labor demands heading into the busiest part of the summer tourism season.

Purgatory Resort says it has fewer employees this summer than last summer. Durango Parks and Recreation is struggling to recruit enough employees to care for its many parks. And restaurants are hoping tips can sustain waitstaffs, but paying management-level positions has been a challenge.

Fort Lewis College visiting assistant professor of economics Nate Peach said many people re-evaluated their working lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic also forced many people to retire early or rely on a spouse’s income, he said.

“We’re such a rural area and it’s really expensive to live here. So if you’re 20-something out of college, in terms of job prospects, there's probably more attractive places to live,” Peach said.

Cole House works the lift Friday at Purgatory Resort. It is his fourth year working at the resort, but he said this year’s gas prices have become a major expense for him commuting from Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Purgatory Resort has struggled to find workers for the summer. According to the human resources department, the resort is only 70% staffed compared with last summer. It lacks employees in food and beverage and lift operations.

Purgatory is trying to combat its labor shortage by helping employees with cost-of-living expenses and incentives for retention. For example, the resort is offering merit increases five months ahead of schedule this year for full-time, year-round employees.

“This typically starts in November but was moved up to June,” said Heather Garland, human resources director. “We’ve also updated our wage plan to give hiring managers a better toolkit for starting wages and salaries to keep Purg competitive.”

The ski resort is also trying to elevate seasonal employee benefits, including increased wages, health insurance and will offer increased wages for taking on additional jobs.

To help employees find a place to live, the resort is leasing motel space to provide affordable housing for employees.

Chefs Brandon Cambridge, left, and David Wilford prepare meals in the kitchen at Purgy's as servers deliver the food to waiting customers on Friday at Purgatory Resort. The ski resort said it has about 70% of the staff compared with this time last summer. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“This started during the winter season and will continue this summer,” Garland said. The program will be expanded next winter.

Durango Parks and Recreation has also struggled to recruit staff members to care for parks and teach its swim classes.

“Swim instructors are tough to fill because of the certifications required to fill that roll,” said Kelli Jaycox, assistant recreation director.

Interim Assistant Parks Director Rob Schoeber said some of the park positions have special requirements. For example, the parks department is looking for a professional landscape architect, which is a job that requires various certifications.

“As desirable as Durango is and with the type of work we have going on with city development underway, this appears to be a very good job,” he said. “We’re just not getting the applications for that type of a position.”

Schoeber said the parks department is also struggling to fill summer seasonal employment. There has been a shortage of park rangers, mowers and landscapers.

“Normally in the summer, we would see a stack of applications 50 deep, and this year we just don't have the applications that we normally would,” he said.

He is unsure if wages played a factor or if there is simply a lack of interest in seasonal employment. The parks department is behind schedule on maintenance and upkeep-related issues because of the shortages.

Animas City Park on Friday has weeds growing and patches of brown grass. A labor shortage within the Durango Parks and Recreation Department has made it more difficult to care for local parks. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“I would say we’re behind at least a month in certain areas,” he said. “Certain areas still haven’t been irrigated, and in June that is not good. Luckily, the rain has helped immensely, but we have to prioritize the large community parks, and some of the smaller areas tend to get delayed.”

The parks department is trying to spread the word about job openings through its website and social media. It also has an employee referral program where if an employee refers another person for a job, that employee receives a bonus if the referred person is hired.

Peach said the labor solution is tricky. The simple outlook is that if employers want labor they must pay for it. That means offering better wages and benefits. Yet, employers have issues finding quality labor.

“The community is also stuck wrestling (with) the housing issue,” he said. “You know if housing were more affordable, there’d be more people here and it would alleviate some of these labor shortages.”

Peach said if Durango were to increase its population by 15% to 30%, the labor problem would be less serious. But it would also change the dynamic of the town.

Government subsidies may have caused some people to drop out of the job market during the height of the pandemic, he said, but that no longer appears to be playing a role in the labor shortage.

“I think the federal government’s policies mattered. Maybe not a huge amount. Even if they did, we’re so far past that,” he said. “Unless people spent every penny of unemployment insurance, which is possible, those effects are kind of in our rearview mirror now.”

Ethan Trembley works Purgy's outside bar on Friday at Purgatory Resort. Trembley has been a steady employee at Purgatory Resort for the past 20 years and is seeing the effects of a shortage of workers. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Certain employers have had success with employee retention. Primi Pasta & Wine Bar has been able to maintain a steady staff during the past year despite difficulties in summer 2021.

“It’s definitely shifted from last year to this year,” owner Jarrod Regan said. “Last year, it was hard to find anybody and we wound up shortening operations to five days a week.”

Regan said a problem with restaurant labor is that employees do not want to move into management roles because servers make more money from tips. Primi keeps employees interested in management positions by pooling gratuities and redistributing them to all employees based on the number of hours worked.

“Because tips are divided based on total hours worked over the day, it’s not like you work a busy three-hour dinner shift as a server and walk away with $150 and the guy washing dishes for 12 hours makes less money,” he said. “I don’t like that system.”

Regan has also incentivized retention at Primi by paying entry-level employees above minimum wage and planning a trip to Italy for the management staff members in the fall. He hopes moves like that will encourage entry-level employees to seek promotions with the restaurant.

“It’s kind of been a long-standing joke in the service industry that you never want to get to management because you make less money and work more hours,” he said. “We kind of tried to take that out of it. We can keep those quality people around and turn them into a quality management team. We want to give them those kinds of incentives.”

tbrown@durangoherald.com

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