State of the Valley: Leaders stress importance of adaptability, collaboration in pandemic
Housing, employment issues also hot-button topics at presentation at CMC Edwards
The 2021 State of the Valley, hosted by the Vail Symposium, brought together leaders from the local business, government, education, and health care sectors to discuss the most prevalent issues in the valley and the initiatives being taken to address them.
The panel discussion was held in-person at Colorado Mountain College on Wednesday morning, and moderator Chris Romer, the president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, led with a question that has been at the forefront of everyone’s mind following the pandemic: “What does normal look like moving forward?”
Three common priorities arose among all four of the panelists — housing, staffing shortages and retention, and mental health support — and all made it clear that these issues can only be addressed effectively through collaborative efforts.
Affordable housing for employees has long been a barrier to staffing recruitment for valley businesses and organizations, but the pandemic has greatly exacerbated the housing shortage. Each of the industry representatives emphasized the need for a multi-pronged approach that involves master leasing, housing development and financial assistance for creating viable and sustainable housing options for staff.
Eagle Schools Superintendent Philip Qualman represented the school system on the panel. Before the pandemic hit, Qualman said that the district had already developed an ambitious 10-year master plan for housing that was impacted by the events of 2020, but the district has still managed to make strides.
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Pre-pandemic, the school district had a master lease on 12 properties, a number that it will more than double next year with 30 properties. District officials plan to acquire 70 master leases by 2023, with rental rates adjusted to match an internal metric of affordability calculated off of base salary. This will ensure that staff are spending no more than 30% of their gross income on rent.
In addition, the board is in the process of approving funding for a new development of 37 units near Battle Mountain High School in Edwards, which utilizes a Certification of Participation financing system that is secured by lease revenues. In the future, the plan is to develop on the small parcels of land that the school has received from various developers to continue expanding housing options for school staff.
Eagle County Manager Jeff Schroll said that housing is the county’s No. 1 initiative and priority right now. $10 million has been allocated specifically towards addressing the issue in various approaches, and he expects more to be made available down the line.
Vail Health CEO Will Cook said that Vail Health is planning to put aside $10-20 million for housing development, and that hospital officials are looking at developing on multiple acres in the valley. The new structures will be made exclusively for Vail Health employees, in the hopes that by giving workers ample space it will free up existing structures for those in other industries.
Beth Howard, President and CEO of Vail Resorts, said the resort is pursuing a similar blueprint to the schools, with an emphasis on master leasing and development, and that this is an issue that will remain the utmost priority until it is finally solved.
”We can do it, we just need to keep it as our highest priority, because it just keeps coming back every year as the No. 1 priority and we haven’t solved it yet,” Howard said. “So I’m motivated.”
Staffing shortages and retention
The common causes of staffing shortages across the industries were the inability to secure J-1 and H-1B visas to bring international workers to the valley, the lack of housing and the limited options for child care.
Howard said that Vail Resorts is restarting its visa programs this winter, and it is expecting an influx of international employees to start in the valley right before Christmas. When asked about what Vail Resorts officials are doing to retain employees, Howard emphasized maintaining a fun and inviting culture, while also providing leadership training to ensure that employees are in the hands of effective bosses who make their experience a positive one.
Cook said that hospitals were already seeing a higher number of people retiring than coming on board before the pandemic, and this imbalance has escalated since last year. The number of intensive care unit beds in the state has dropped from 1900 to 1600 due to staffing shortages, and there is a 40% vacancy rate in clinical assistance.
Cook also said that the Vail Health Hospital is currently full, not with patients from Eagle County but with spillover patients from surrounding towns in the state that have not been as effective in curbing the virus as our community has. To address the rising need for staff, Vail Health is working with CMC to create ladders for local workers, and is bringing in staff from other parts of the country to fill employment gaps, which Cook laments costs two to three times as much as resident employees.
Vail Health is also making it a priority to reduce health care costs in the area so that living here is a safe and viable option for more people, and officials are also working closely with insurance companies to offer significantly more affordable benefit options.
Qualman said that the district set aside more money for staffing than it has since the Great Recession, but though it had the money to hire sufficient staff, it didn’t have enough people looking to fill the positions.
“We were looking forward to having small class sizes and support for students coming into this year, and then there was a staffing shortage,” Qualman said.
The district started off the school year with 9% of jobs unfilled, and have since reduced that number to 7% using strategies such as salary adjustments, mid-year hiring bonuses and mid-year salary adjustments, a more robust employee assistance program, and increasing the frequency and access to district meetings to give teachers and administrators a greater voice in the overall decision making process. District officials are also looking to take advantage of the renewed visa programs to recruit teachers from Spanish-speaking nations to work in the bilingual school system.
“We need to hear from our front-line people what that experience is like so that we can reflect on that and make the appropriate changes,” Qualman said.
The last common priority among the industries was ensuring that staff have access to comprehensive mental health services.
All of the panelists expressed gratitude that Eagle Valley Behavioral Health was established right before the pandemic, and they have been working with providers to secure affordable, and often free, mental health service to staff.
The need was most prominent for Vail Health and Eagle Schools employees.
Cook said it was a clear priority for the hospital staff, who have been burned out from the COVID patient influx and frustrations facing mistruths about the vaccine and the virus. Qualman said that teachers and administrators at the schools have never faced the level of dramatic change and adaptation that they have been forced to make last year and this year, and making support for mental and emotional strains readily available is necessary for retaining and supporting his staff.
Collaboration is the solution
Across all four of the big industries in the valley, the message was clear that the issues most prominent in the current state of the valley all require collaborative solutions, not just between industries but between municipalities and towns throughout Colorado. Housing, health care, child care, transportation — it all weaves together, if there is one good thing to come out of the pandemic, it’s that everyone learned that they need to work together to keep Eagle County safe, functional and sustainable.
“When I started my career here in the valley 30 years ago we were all pretty isolated, pretty siloed, and we are so connected now,” Schroll said. “I would wait with anticipation for some of the collaborations you’re going to see with Vail Health, with the school district, with Vail Resorts and with their municipal partners.”