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Help wanted, really, in wake of COVID-19

In Durango, some short-staffed restaurants go dark a couple of days a week
Ken Martin, head brewer at Steamworks Brewing Co., talks about its craft beers during a Wednesday training session. Currently, Peak Food & Beverage has about 15 open positions among its three restaurants. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has at least 20 openings, the Strater Hotel and Peak Food & Beverage Co. both have 15 openings. Carver Brewing Co. has been closed for weeks on Tuesdays and Wednesdays

An inability to fill jobs – a problem that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic when the federal government began offering enhanced unemployment, first an extra $600 a week, now reduced to $300 a week– has hit nationwide and it’s been felt in Durango, too.

“A lot of seasonal positions are coming up, and we are really struggling right now,” said Jeff Johnson, D&SNG’s general manager. “We’re seeing a lot more overtime hours for everybody to cover the positions as well.”

Under an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis, the state has started the Colorado Jumpstart Program, which pays unemployed workers a $1,200 bonus if they accept a job and stay with it for at least two months.

The $1,200 bonus is down from a $1,600 bonus that was offered until Saturday.

Johnson said he hopes the state program boosts job applicants as the train begins its daily summer runs to Silverton.

D&SNG executives are also discussing offering their own bonuses to fill positions, but haven’t decided if they will go forward with that yet.

Jim Carver, co-owner of Carver Brewing Co., said his brewpub is now offering all its employees, new or veterans, a $250 signing bonus as well as an additional $500 if they guarantee they will stay through Nov. 1.

Carver Brewing Co. plans to reopen seven days a week on June 8. For the past couple of months, the brewpub has been closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as it struggles to hire enough employees to fill shifts. (Patrick Armijo/Durango Herald)

Carver’s has been closed for the past couple of months on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because it has not been able to fill all its shifts. Carver’s is planning to go seven days a week beginning June 8.

The bonuses not only help attract workers, but they also help keep them, Carver said. A lot of college students leave in August, but Carver said the brewpub stays busy through October.

“We've never had a problem getting help before,” he said. “This all started with COVID. Things have changed quite a bit. The question that’s on everybody’s mind is: Is this a permanent thing? Are people leaving the restaurant industry to go someplace else? The marketplace always kind of evolves.”

Kris Oyler, co-founder and CEO of Peak Food & Beverage, which operates Steamworks Brewing Co., El Moro Spirits and Tavern and Bird’s, said 15 vacant positions are available among the three Peak restaurants.

Oyler shares concerns with Carver that many people who worked in the restaurant industry might be looking to move to different fields.

“COVID-19 has been tough on workers in the hospitality industry,” he said. “We've had a lot of issues both from people who are overly paranoid about COVID, all the way to anti-maskers. They’ve really kind of mistreated our staff over the last year. And I think a lot of people – they don't like that kind of mistreatment – and they’re asking themselves: Do I want to be in the hospitality industry?”

Peak Food & Beverage used money from the Paycheck Protection Program to keep employees on the payroll throughout the pandemic, and Oyler believes that has left its operations better-staffed now than many other restaurants.

“We pay people a good wage, and that’s helped with retention, but it's been challenging to get people to come back in the restaurant industry,” he said.

The reluctance of restaurant workers to return, Oyler said, comes not only from enhanced unemployment but also a concern about working with the public during the pandemic.

Oyler is optimistic that a combination of increased vaccinations among the public, the state’s Jumpstart program and the eventual end to enhanced unemployment on Sept. 6 will all work to improve the labor situation for restaurants.

“We’ve actually had more applicants recently hired than we really need to keep our operations open seven days a week,” he said.

Tori Ossola, general manager at the Strater Hotel, said indications point to a strong summer tourism season, and the biggest challenge for the next few months is likely to be finding the staff to keep operations humming.

Like Carver’s, the restaurants at the Strater are currently closed two days a week, Mondays and Tuesdays, to deal with staff shortages.

“Everybody’s going through the same thing,” she said. “We can't really refer people downstream to too many places.”

Enhanced unemployment is set to end Sept. 6, but that will be after the thick part of the summer tourism season is over, she said.

In the short term, Ossola said the Strater is offering plenty of hours to its current staff, with the inn booked at 90% occupancy for the next three weeks.

More applications have been coming in since Polis’ unveiling of the Jumpstart program, Ossola said, and next week she expects the Strater’s restaurants to be operating seven days a week.

Workers who wait until Sept. 6 before beginning their job search might want to reassess their plans, she said.

“Will the jobs be around? We may have adapted all summer long to work without them. And at that point, we might be so in our groove that we might not actually need to bring people back,” she said.

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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