Valley businesses scramble to find peak-season workers
By Ann McCreary
During any busy summer weekend in Winthrop, visitors swarm Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe like yellow jackets at a picnic. Chances are they’ll be served the ice cream cones and candy that are Sheri’s specialty by an employee from Europe.
“Usually a quarter to a third of our employees we get from outside the valley. We bring students in from overseas,” said Doug Mohre, co-owner of Sheri’s. “We started doing it about seven years ago. The [local] labor force is just not enough … for the tourist season.”
Operating a business in a small, rural community like the Methow Valley, with its dramatic seasonal fluctuations in population, is challenging. One of the biggest challenges, local business owners say, is finding enough employees.
“It’s probably one of the hardest parts of running a business in the valley … to find consistent labor,” said Steven Kelly, owner of Kelly’s restaurant at Wesola Polana in Mazama.
“It’s a perennial struggle,” Kelly said. “On the one hand it’s hard to find people, and when you do find them it’s hard to keep hold of them because you have to promise a certain amount of hours.
“Luckily, I’m a small enough restaurant that I can run a small crew. And, I’m insane enough to work 18 hours a day.”
Employers cite several factors that contribute to the “perennial” difficulties in hiring: the seasonal nature of the valley’s many tourist-oriented businesses, a small local work force, and lack of affordable housing.
Businesses have had to come up with some creative — and sometimes almost desperate — approaches to dealing with the hiring crunch. During the past two summers, for example, some employees of the Mazama Store have lived in cars parked in the woods, because they couldn’t find an affordable place to live.
“We’d let them take a shower at our house, help them arrange for laundry,” said Missy LeDuc, who owns the store with her husband, Rick.
This summer all the store employees have a roof over their heads, perhaps because the LeDucs are housing them in guest quarters at their Mazama home.
“You have to do what you have to do” in order to find enough employees during the busy summer tourist season, LeDuc explained.
“It’s a tough labor market right now,” said Mike Clayton, owner of Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon and Cafe in Winthrop.
“Town is busy with visitors. You assume that’s always a good thing — except when you have limited staff … to take care of them,” Clayton said.
“We’re OK right now,” said Clayton, just before the busy Fourth of July holiday weekend. “But we’re one body away from not being OK. You lose a dishwasher and you’re in trouble.”
In the 18 years he’s owned Jack’s, Clayton has seen the labor market get tougher for employers in the valley, and he believes it’s due to the growing popularity of the valley as a vacation destination.
“We had some down years, but the economy bounced back. Winthrop is being discovered by the Seattle crowd. The Methow Valley is one of the desirable [vacation] places in the state,” Clayton said.
To import the employees who work at Sheri’s in summer, Mohre uses a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State that provides work and travel visas to college students. This year he has employees from Poland, The Netherlands, Romania and Macedonia, working from May through September.
“They’re on contract to work for us. They work three months and travel a month,” Mohre explained.
It’s the employers’ responsibility to provide housing for the visiting workers, and several years ago Mohre bought a house in Winthrop that can accommodate six people.
For his business, the investment has been worth it, Mohre said.
“Your No. 1 asset in your business are your employees,” Mohre said. “We’re seasonal. Nobody’s going to rent just for summer, and the cost of housing in the valley — college kids can’t afford $800 a month.”
Sun Mountain Lodge, one of the valley’s largest employers, also imports employees from overseas to meet its staffing needs during the busy summer season.
“We all share the same situation. The valley keeps growing in terms of popularity, and businesses are all vying for the same employee pool,” said General Manager Brian Charlton.
“I don’t think the available market place for hiring has grown” at the same pace as the valley’s economy, he said.
Like Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe, Sun Mountain Lodge began importing overseas workers to round out its staff during the busy summer season. This summer the lodge has 10 foreign students working at jobs in the dining room, housekeeping and front desk.
To provide the required housing for its foreign employees, Sun Mountain rents a large house in Winthrop where up to eight workers stay.
“It’s expensive. We have to keep it rented year-round, but we don’t have people year-round,” Charlton said. Sun Mountain provides housing for another dozen employees in apartments and rooms on Sun Mountain property.
In addition to the foreign workers, Sun Mountain brings in college interns to work in the resort’s activities center during the busy summer months.
Like other business owners, Missy LeDuc at the Mazama Store said her business volume has grown in recent years. “We’re way busier now in the summer than we’ve ever been.”
And because winter is increasingly busy as well, LeDuc said her business racks up extra expenses by holding onto employees during the slow “shoulder season” in the fall, just to ensure they are there when snow-seeking visitors arrive.
“I really try hard to keep people here busy, so I can have them in the winter. I end up having to pay more for labor when I don’t need it, to keep them here,” LeDuc said.
Even so, she found herself short-staffed last October, when beautiful fall weather drew large numbers of tourists to the valley.
“We had the busiest month of October ever. We were working nonstop, 12- to 14-hour days, because we didn’t have enough staff. It’s almost a nightmare,” LeDuc said.
LeDuc said the lack of available, affordable housing — especially in her end of the valley — makes it especially difficult to find and retain staff.
“People do house-sitting, but it’s rare in winter. And I haven’t had anybody have good luck in finding summer housing,” she said.
Transportation may help
Twisp River Pub, one of Twisp’s most enduring eateries, also grapples with the problem of finding employees willing and able to take a seasonal job.
“We do over twice as much business in summer” as the rest of the year, said owner Aaron Studen.
“We have to lay people off in winter. That’s the problem. You give people a job but they know it’s only six months. If they’re going to sign a year lease or put their kids in school, they want to know they’re going to have a job for the year.”
Studen hires high school students and returning college students to meet summer demand, but faces challenges posed by an uncertain and transient employee pool.
“I don’t schedule myself on regular shifts on purpose so I’m available to do anything that needs to be done. I recently had someone quit and hired somebody who walked in the door an hour later,” Studen said.
“I looked over his resume and said, ‘You can start working right now.’ He put on an apron and started working. He turned out to be a great employee. But he still doesn’t have a place to live.”
Clayton said it seems that teenagers who might take summer jobs at Three Fingered Jack’s and other valley businesses simply don’t want to work. “We’ve got the highest minimum wage in the nation. People don’t want to work for $9.32 an hour. The teen work force is down,” he said.
Sun Mountain’s Charlton said he has hopes that a new public bus system that was approved by county voters last year may help open the valley to workers from the Okanogan Valley who can’t live here because of the lack of affordable housing, and can’t get here because of lack of transportation.
“Building low-income housing isn’t going to happen,” Charlton said. “But when this bus thing finally gets going, that could really be huge for us. If they could bus over … I’ll be attempting to tap into the Okanogan market.”