In front of a popular Ketchum pizzeria and Italian restaurant, signs read, “Now Hiring. All positions.” At Sun Valley Resort—one of the largest employers in the area—some 80 job openings are posted online. In the newspaper classifieds, dozens of ads stream below the heading of “Help Wanted.”
As many Ketchum-area businesses continue to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are encountering another major challenge: a shortage of workers.
“We’re struggling like the rest of them,” said Chip Atkinson, co-owner of Atkinsons’ Markets, which has grocery stores in Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. “It’s tough.”
Atkinson said his company currently has 10-15 job openings at its stores, mostly entry-level positions such as cashiers, deli staff and service workers. Most upper-level positions are held by loyal, long-term employees, he said.
It is well known in resort towns that businesses turnover staff. Young people might be testing living in a ski town for a year. College students return home but only for the summer. Professionals might work a service job until they can find a position in their preferred sector.
However, things feel different now, Atkinson said. Fewer people are walking through the door to inquire about work or pick up an application.
“It feels like it’s pretty significant,” he said.
Part of the problem, Atkinson believes, is a shortage of foreign workers who typically flock to the area to work at Sun Valley Resort on temporary work visas. The visas were suspended during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and, as the pandemic lingers, the visa programs have not fully scaled up. Workers on government J-1 visas would sometimes come to Atkinsons’ to get a second, part-time job, Atkinson said. But, not lately, he noted.
“We haven’t seen that yet,” he said.
The slight shortage of staff has prompted some changes, Atkinson said. During the pandemic, the Ketchum store started closing at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. That will likely continue. One day last week, he had to juggle staff to make sure all delivery orders could be filled. Employees are given the opportunity to work extra hours or to work six days a week instead of five.
“If it gets significantly busier, it could be tough,” Atkinson said.
Adelaide Smithmason, general manager of Enoteca restaurant in Ketchum, said her restaurant has been busy and she is gradually returning operations to pre-COVID levels, but she’s worried about having enough employees. She has a core staff who stayed with the restaurant during the pandemic, she said, but now she needs additional workers as business picks up and the busy summer season arrives. She has hired some college students to work for the summer, but they will likely leave in August.
Smithmason said one cause of the shortage is apparent.
“Housing is a huge issue,” she said.
She said she has seen local workers have their rental units sold or rents doubled in the pandemic-fueled real estate boom in the area. One of her employees had been living in someone’s garage, she said.
Olin Glenne, owner of Sturtevants, which operates four sports stores in the Wood River Valley, agreed that a lack of affordable, workforce housing is an issue. However, he said, his business has benefited from having a group of long-term, loyal employees and low turnover.
“I feel like I’m sneaking through right now,” he said. “I think I’ve been lucky, but I feel like I’m an anomaly.”
Glenne said the trend of the fall and spring “slack” seasons getting busier in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area has helped him give his employees full-time work for much more of the year. He was able to hire one employee from out of the area, he said, and has turned to hiring some younger people to fill out the staff for the summer.
“Business is strong,” he said. “We had a very busy winter and spring and I see the momentum continuing.”
Sun Valley Resort is also expecting a very busy summer, but concerns about staffing persist, said Bridget Higgins, director of marketing and public relations. Hiring seasonal employees to work in the busy summer and winter months “poses a challenge,” she said.
“We are not immune to the staffing shortages in the valley,” Higgins said. “We are working closely with our partners to strategize how best to work through this challenge as a team.”
The resort does provide housing for many employees in dorms near the Sun Valley Lodge. But, as shown in national data, other factors could be at play. The U.S. Department of Labor reported this month that the nation had 9.3 million job openings in April, at a time when millions of Americans remained unemployed. Economic experts and politicians have speculated that the causes of jobs going unfilled range from lingering fear of catching COVID-19 and a lack of childcare to preferring to collect unemployment benefits, which were expanded during the pandemic.
The worker shortages have impacted mountain resorts in many regions, the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association reported this month.
“Like many industries, ski areas struggled to find workers this season,” the organization stated in a report on the 2020-21 ski season. “Sixty percent of responding ski areas stated that they were not fully staffed this winter. The pause on J-1 and H-2b international worker visa programs was a contributing factor; the average ski area was short 55 employees, half of whom would have come on an international work visa.”
For his part, Atkinson said he believes an influx of new residents in the Wood River Valley likely created more demand for on-site workers to support them, and possibly drew some away from retail businesses and restaurants. But in the end, he said, it’s unclear to him why more applicants aren’t showing up.
“It’s a mystery,” he said.