Housing remains a barrier for workers
Local restaurants and retail shops are reducing hours and even closing completely on some days. Employers are offering signing and retention bonuses of up to $1,000. Hotel rooms are blocked off because there’s no one to clean them.
Businesses throughout the valley — in particular, those that cater to tourists — are struggling to find enough employees to staff the busy summer season.
“The mood felt dire” at a Winthrop Chamber of Commerce meeting last week, Winthrop Marketing Director Anne Young said. “Businesses were really struggling, across the board.”
The reasons are varied, but most business owners point to a lack of housing as the culprit. Others say the extra unemployment benefits to help people weather the COVID pandemic are too tempting.
“We’re just treading water,” said Jacob Young, co-owner and general manager of the Old Schoolhouse Brewery. In five years with the business, Young has never had so much trouble finding staff. A $200 bonus doesn’t seem to have mattered. “I haven’t felt as desperate, ever,” he said.
Some places have reduced their hours, but other restaurants in Winthrop can’t even open until they find enough workers. Some have posted signs explaining they’re closed because of “staffing challenges.”
Tiffany Yates, who bought the Kind Grinds coffee shop in Winthrop last year, is biding her time for another couple of weeks, until an employee from last summer is out of school. Being closed for extra days is preferable to taking the time to train new staff, Yates said.
“If we can’t find more warm bodies, Trails’ End [Bookstore] will have to close one day a week,” which they’ve never done, said co-owner Abilene Hagee. The store may not be able to stay open in the evenings this summer, she said.
“It’s a difficult decision, but we need our staff to be happy and healthy,” Hagee said. Just two employees kept the bookstore going throughout the stresses of the pandemic. “We need to give them some breathing room,” she said.
A special visa program that provides cultural and work experiences for foreign workers has been drastically scaled back this year, after being shut down last year because of COVID. Employers must provide housing, but some — like Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe — rely on the workers.
This year, Sheri’s hired six young people, but only two — from Thailand — have received their visas. There’s such a backlog that Sheri’s owner Kyle Johnston doesn’t expect the others will be approved this summer.
Not every place is facing the same hurdles. Joshua Buehler, owner of the AbbyCreek Inn in Winthrop and the Idle-A-While in Twisp, said almost all their staff from last year has returned. Many come back year after year, collecting unemployment during the slow season, he said.
Many business owners are quick to blame the lack of housing in the valley for the employee crisis. There are no affordable options, and seasonal rentals are even harder to come by, said Hagee, who’s also president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce. Some workers are looking for housing as far away as Omak.
One woman said that two friends — both working — are living in a tent after their rental house was sold. “I’m really hoping the best for this valley, after watching all these people move away,” she said. “Hopefully, people will come down on rent.”
“For some businesses, housing can be an issue in retaining employees,” AbbyCreek’s Buehler said. But if you treat your staff with respect and pay them well, word travels fast and it’s easier to retain them, he said.
Other business owners say the extra $300 per week that people can collect in unemployment benefits to offset job losses from the COVID pandemic is so attractive that it’s kept people from returning to work. Unemployed workers don’t need to look for work to qualify. The extra benefits run through Sept. 4.
But others doubt that the extra compensation is a factor. Hagee said she doesn’t know anyone who isn’t already working. And some people are reluctant to return to work because of health concerns or lack of adequate child care.
The unemployment rate in Okanogan County was 7.9% in March, down from 8.5% in February, according to the latest figures from the Washington Employment Security Department. But the data are too old to capture the change from the slow shoulder season to summer demands.
Compared with other counties in north central Washington, Okanogan County has fewer people in the work force — people who aren’t in school or retired, TwispWorks Executive Director Don Linnertz said. Linnertz talked with the Winthrop and Twisp chambers of commerce last week about strategies for attracting employees.
Almost every day, Linnertz hears about staffing problems because of housing shortages. Some people can’t find anyplace to live. Some were fed up with substandard housing and left the valley. And some can’t work more hours for fear of losing subsidized housing, he said.
While rental housing has always been scarce in the Methow, a moratorium on evictions declared last year during the COVID pandemic is in place through the end of June.
Staffing shortages are also hitting businesses in Twisp and Mazama. Cinnamon Twisp Bakery is closing one day a week until they find more workers, Office Manager Kathy Carney said. “It’s been bad since last year, and getting worse,” she said. An excellent employee recently left after losing a rental.
It’s particularly hard for bakeries to fill overnight baking shifts. The Rocking Horse Bakery is limping along with extra closures until school is out, when high school students can take on more hours, co-owner Carolyn Westerfield said.
“We have fewer employees now than ever. We had to close because there’s not enough staff. You can’t run the front with one employee five days a week,” Westerfield said.
Westerfield and her family do most of the baking, but they need more help. Right now, there’s only enough bread for sandwiches. “We’d love to put out a whole rack of bread,” Westerfield said. “But there are only so many hours people can work before they’re exhausted.”
Some business owners have taken the housing situation into their own hands. Several offer temporary housing in a spare room while employees look for a permanent arrangement.
“I’m thinking about buying something to house my staff — that wasn’t part of the plan for growing the business,” OSB’s Young said.
But even those that provide housing are having trouble. The Freestone Inn has a bunkhouse for a couple of employees, which is usually a big draw, General Manager Marvin Sutton said. “It usually fills right up,” but this year no one has even inquired about the rooms, he said.
It’s always been difficult to find people willing to drive to Mazama to work, Sutton said. “Now, there’s just a whole other level of almost a crisis,” he said.
After advertising for a month, Sutton has had just two applicants. He hired one this week to work part time, even though he needed a full-time employee. “I’ll take what I can get,” he said.
“It’s shaping up to be a very, very busy summer,” Sutton said. The inn needs servers, housekeepers and people who can work weddings.
In the meantime, the Freestone has cut back on the rooms it rents, since there aren’t enough housekeepers to clean between guests.
With Methow Valley housing prices in record territory, some business owners say landlords took advantage of the hot market and sold.
Dave Thomsen, senior managing broker and branch manager at Coldwell Banker Winthrop Realty, has heard those rumors. “But that’s not my personal experience,” he said. “Listings are really low.”
“When property values rise, it limits the pool of who can buy them, and the rental pool — it’s all interconnected,” Thomsen said. “At the end of the day, there’s a shortage of properties.” Although inventory has increased in the past couple of weeks, prices are higher than ever, he said.
“All businesses are in this together. We don’t see it as competition — we’re all providing a service to locals and tourists,” OSB’s Young said.