Housing woes contribute to workforce shortage; higher wages not definitive solution, says local restaurateur
August 25, 2017
Editor’s note: This article is part of the final installment in Sky-Hi News’s three-part housing series that examines the affordable housing issue facing Grand County and its widespread effects.
Ask any employer in Grand County about the labor market and they are likely to exclaim how difficult it is to find workers or to even retain them.
With remarkably low unemployment in the county, the pool of available workers is already small, but add in rising rents and the relative dearth of rental stock and the picture becomes more complicated.
The ways these issues play out varies between employers.
“I don’t really know a good solution. I don’t know that increases in wages can do it. A $1 per hour increase doesn’t make up the difference. It is a tough situation for a small business and it is all related to housing; more so than it is wages. Seasonal workers are not coming here looking to get rich. They are looking to have fun, but having a place to put your head at night is part of that.”-Peter Colley,General manager, Silver Creek Steakhouse
Peter Colley, general manager of the Silver Creek Steakhouse in Granby, has been struggling all summer to fill positions at the restaurant, which he attributes to unaffordable housing costs and low availability.
"People who normally come to the county for summer and winter jobs don't come here anymore," Colley said. "They can't afford to live here, and even if they could afford it, there is nothing left for them to rent."
Colley has been short-staffed throughout this summer, able to operate a full dining room only two days per week purely because a lack of employees. While the restaurateur expressed his belief that the housing problem is related to both the high cost of rent and lack of inventory, Colley believes cost is the greater factor of the two.
"It is a little bit of both, but I would say price is what keeps workers from coming here," he said. "A two bedroom condo runs anywhere from $1,000 to $1,600 per month and people in the service industry can't afford that."
Colley said he offers servers $10 per hour, plus tips, at the steakhouse, but even that is not enough to cover rental costs. It is his belief that employers alone could not solve the problem by offering higher wages.
"I don't really know a good solution," Colley said. "I don't know that increases in wages can do it. A $1 per hour increase doesn't make up the difference. It is a tough situation for a small business and it is all related to housing; more so than it is wages. Seasonal workers are not coming here looking to get rich. They are looking to have fun, but having a place to put your head at night is part of that."
Amy Kaplanis, owner and operator of Country Ace Hardware in Granby, echoed many of Colley's sentiments, though with a different core labor issue.
For Country Ace, the problem is less about finding workers than it is about retaining them.
"Typically our employees are already living in the county," Kaplanis said. "How it affects us is when they lose their apartment or a roommate. It happens often enough that I am concerned about it. We need more affordable housing."
Kaplanis said she often hears about the "through the roof" cost of housing for hourly-wage workers in Grand County and questioned how many of the seasonal workers in the area would be permanent year-round residents if they could find appropriate housing. She added that the housing crunch impacts businesses on the back-end with the regular struggle to meet staffing needs.
Some businesses like Country Ace, which hires seasonal foreign workers through a J-1 visa program, also provide workforce housing for some of their employees. That option, however, is not realistic for many smaller local businesses.
Kaplanis also believes that wages were not the core issue and that any wage increases would limit businesses ability to provide other enticements for workers, such as housing.
"We run on very thin margins," Kaplanis said. "It certainly has a huge impact on what we are able to do as a company when a larger percentage goes to wages."
Whatever the solution is, if there really is a definitive one, so long as the housing market in Grand County remains tight, the labor shortage problems the county is facing will continue to stymie business growth.