Battered Vail area businesses struggle to staff up for the summer
Delay in employees returning to the workforce presents an existential threat
After surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, local business owners are now faced with a new existential threat: convincing workers to come back
Hiring has always been a challenge in Eagle County. With seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including lack of affordable housing and reasonable child care options, employees find it difficult to sustain themselves.
These issues, as well as an onset of new ones, have plagued local small business owners as they try to reopen fully and recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m scared out of my mind,” said Adrienne Cavallario, owner of The Roaming Gourmet in Eagle. “My biggest fear is having smaller businesses survive COVID and then have to close because they don’t have any help.”
The industries hit the hardest by the pandemic are now facing “one of the most challenging environments in the past 20 years,” said Chris Romer, president and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, Eagle County’s chamber of commerce. “We have seen many people leave the workforce and a candidate may be a good fit for a job, but barriers to employment like child care, transportation and receiving training and development could stop talented candidates from taking a job.”
This issue of hiring is becoming increasingly prominent as the valley prepares for a busy summer season.
“This year is going to be one of the busiest summers ever and people aren’t going to be able to do the business they want because there’s no help,” said Dave Foster, co-owner of Pastatively, the popular Italian restaurant in Eagle. “They have to do less.”
As Pastatively prepares to close its doors for good at the end of this month, Foster said the decision was made because fellow co-owner Roberto Cammarota was ready to retire, their lease was up, but also because they had immense difficulty finding workers to staff the place.
According to the Colorado Restaurant Association’s May 2021 COVID-19 report, while nearly one in three restaurant employees in Colorado are out of work, 92% of restaurant owners are reporting having trouble hiring right now.
“Even though we’re allowed to operate at 100% capacity, a lot of restaurants are having to scale back on their capacity so they don’t provide a service that they’re not known for or proud of,” said Alison Wadey, executive director of the Vail Chamber and Business Association. “They want to provide the best service, but they need to do it within the capacity of how many employees they have.”
This is certainly the case for Cavallario, who started The Roaming Gourmet as a food truck before expanding into a brick-and-mortar space in Eagle in June.
“Our biggest fear as business owners is always having people go on social media and say they had to wait too long or ‘the food was good, but the service was horrible,’” Cavallario said. “Those are things that scar you forever.”
The only employees Cavallario has had success in attracting are teenagers looking to earn some spending money, and they don’t always excel in the customer service realm, she said. She needs someone who knows what a gin and tonic is or, better yet, someone who can make one.
For many restaurant owners, difficulty hiring has meant limiting hours, menu items and even restaurant capacity. Cavallario has already had to stop operating on Tuesdays to give her lone chef a break, she said, and if one person calls in sick, she would likely have to close the whole restaurant.
Across the board
Restaurants are far from the only industry feeling the pinch of running understaffed, Romer said.
“It’s not a hospitality problem, or a retail problem, or a restaurant problem: it’s across all industries and similar situations exist across the country,” he said.
Colorado is one of the states that is keeping the extra unemployment benefit provided during the COVID-19 pandemic — an extra $300 a week — through September. Other state governors — including Utah, Arizona, Nebraska and Wyoming — have ended the extra benefit as all states struggle with hiring.
Some local experts and business owners suspect that this is part of the problem.
“I think people are slower to come back to the workforce that have been on unemployment because we’re one of those states that have that little extra bonus,” Wadey said.
Cavallario said she also believes that this extra cushioning, combined with other barriers to reentering the workforce like the unaffordability of child care, is a big part of the problem.
She fears she will have to up the pay she is offering to base level employees to a point that will become unsustainable and would likely force her and others to increase the cost of goods and services.
“We can’t survive that,” Cavallario said.
Jeff Andrews, a business recovery coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, disagrees with this characterization.
“There are absolutely people who are staying home and staying out of the workforce because the $300 is meaningful for them,” he said. “But I absolutely disagree that that is the source of the problem or that that is even a large determining factor in keeping a significant number of people out of the workforce. I just don’t buy it.”
Looking for meaningful work
According to Andrews, the main thing impacting hiring is the way employees are valuing themselves.
“People are trying to find other work that pays the same, that might be more meaningful. It’s one of the things about having so many jobs out there that are available. That gives people an opportunity to consider what’s important to them and to shift their profession or their job,” Andrews said.
Tommy Neyens, the owner of Bike Valet in Vail’s Lionshead Village, said his business has been sustained by a few loyal employees, one of whom said he was eager to return to work not just for the job itself, but for the community the shop provides.
“[Neyens] is the best,” James Kirschner said with a grin. Kirschner said he has worked for Neyens for the last three summers because of the fun environment the shop embodies.
Neyens said he has had some trouble hiring, but he blames the logistics of the shop’s seasonal operations rather than the pandemic.
As a shop that is only open Memorial Day through Labor Day, “finding people who want to work or need to work for three months has always been difficult,” he said.
Griffin Bradham, assistant manager of the Burton shop in Lionshead, also hinted at a deeper reason for remaining in his role.
Bradham has been a year-round employee at Vail Resorts Retail for about two years and was quick to get back to work at the end of mud season.
“There are few places to work that are cooler than a snowboard shop,” Bradham said.
The Burton shop is still hiring, but it isn’t short-staffed, Bradham said.
Cavallario, on the other hand, has been working 120 hours per week to keep her business afloat, she said.
She would like to have two to three more staff in the kitchen and three in the front of the house, but instead she is filling all those roles. She said she has even considered strategically sharing staff with another local business owner.
“Maybe people just got used to not working,” Neyens said of the apparent delay in employees returning to the workforce as the valley comes to life for the summer season.
As a short-term solution to this, the state launched the Colorado Jumpstart program, which offered unemployed workers up to $1,600 for going back to work between May 16 and June 26.
The state reports this program to be effective so far, with a recent study finding that statewide unemployment is slowly declining and the share of Coloradans participating in the labor force has reached pre-pandemic levels.
Underlying issues still acute
For small, rural communities like Eagle County, though, local experts agree that there is only one way out of the situation, and that’s working together as a community to address the more long-term underlying issues.
“We just really need to band together as a county with our recruiting practices and if there is some sort of way to co-op on housing or helping people locate housing,” Wadey said.
“We need to address the foundational challenges of housing, child care, transit, and workforce development pipelines if we are going to truly solve the issue,” Romer said.
The good thing, according to Andrews, is that COVID-19 created new pathways for communication between local governments and businesses.
“Never before has government and business worked so closely together as they have during the pandemic,” he said. “We all need to take advantage of this improved relationship with government, and we need to leverage that to start moving the needle on some of these issues.”
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org