Tight staffing, longer season hits businesses

September 5, 2018

Pearl Street Bagels serves up bagels and coffee 363 days a year, closing only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But the popular bagelry took the unprecedented step of closing its Jackson locale for two consecutive Sundays in August due to lack of staff.

“It is the hardest summer we have ever had,” said Polly Filice, who has owned the eatery for 10 years with Heather Gould. “Each summer has gotten progressively worse.”

As Filice described staffing difficulties, she briefly paused the phone interview to deliver cream cheese to Wilson. Even when the Jackson shop closed Filice still worked at the Wilson eatery, which remained open.

On Monday’s Labor Day holiday she was back at the Jackson counter slinging bagels with a line of customers stretching out the door. It was her 14th workday in a row, a tall order for a mother of one and for fellow owner Gould, a mother of three.

To keep both locations open over the busy Labor Day weekend her shop manager worked six straight double shifts, Filice said.

“We’re just kind of fighting on a weekly basis to keep it open,” Filice said.

Operating on a skeleton crew has become the norm for many Jackson businesses, especially at the end of August when college and high school students return to school and in late September when J1 visa workers depart. The J1 visa holders work seasonally through a national cultural exchange program.

“I’d say September is the hardest part of the whole year,” said Lee Gardner, owner of Lee’s Tees, which has been selling souvenir wear for 40 years. “There’s always a little bit of a crisis.”

This year the store is “fine,” Gardner said, but “a year or two ago I might have said we need someone really bad.”

Employees are working extra hard, with few days off, he said.

“The ones who are there are tired, but that’s been going on for 40 years,” he said.

Likewise, Miga Rossetti, who owns Pizzeria Caldera with her husband, Chris Hansen, said the restaurant’s college-bound employees have departed, and the restaurant runs through the fall with a slimmer crew of year-round employees and two J1 visa workers.

Gardner also relies on a core group of permanent employees.

“You hope nobody gets sick or has an emergency,” he said. “The offseason has gotten busier and longer, so if you have the problem it lasts longer. I call October the new September.”

It hasn’t always been like this.

Clarene Law, owner of Town Square Inns, has been offering hotel rooms to visitors since 1962.

“Things used to fold up on Labor Day,” she said. “I’d put a note on the door and say ‘Gone Fishing,’ and, literally, I went fishing down on the Snake [River]. There’s very good fishing this time of year.”

Now, Law said, “September for us is stronger than June.”

In the past, business was so slow post-Labor Day, she said, “that’s when we needed, for instance, the lodging tax, which only addresses the offseason. It was very much a season expander.” The tax is a 2 percent charge tacked onto visitors’ lodging bills.

Law was in the Wyoming Legislature when lawmakers voted to allow Teton County to spend 40 percent of its lodging tax revenues on services and the remaining 60 percent on tourism promotion. Originally the law required 90 percent of the tax revenues to go to marketing.

Now 40 percent goes to town and county coffers to help pay for services like START, community pathways maintenance, and trash and recycling collection on Town Square. START has also faced a staffing shortage, struggling to recruit bus drivers, and it recently increased driver pay.

Law credits the Fall Arts Festival, which starts today, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art, with boosting business beyond Labor Day. Law characterizes the offseason as Oct. 15 until nearly Christmas.

The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board employs an even wider definition of the offseason: mid-September to the beginning of June. The board’s mission is to promote tourism in the leaner times so that businesses and employees have consistent work throughout the year.

It uses national advertising campaigns in targeted destinations to boost hotel occupancy rates during its defined offseason. Executive Director Kate Sollitt said the board doesn’t promote summer, when occupancy rates average above 90 percent, but begins its work after the Fall Arts Festival, when occupancy drops dramatically and employees are faced with fewer hours or businesses that close for a portion of the fall.

“That’s certainly our goal, that employees can stay during the shoulder season,” she said.

Expanding business through the fall helps Pizzeria Caldera maintain a core year-round workforce, Rossetti said. If the restaurant closes for too long when business becomes slow in November, she said, the restaurant risks losing employees who might start looking for another job.

For Filice, Pearl Street Bagels is busy year-round, with locals returning to the shop once tourists dissipate.

“We’re not looking to get any busier,” Filice said. “Everything is so pulsing in the summer now it’s so hard to pull it off. It doesn’t leave any wiggle room.”

Instead she’s looking for ways to ensure employees have days off, because schmearing cream cheese repeatedly while standing at a counter for long hours isn’t sustainable, she said.

“Your body just starts to give out after hustling the line,” she said. “How do we maintain this? We want to do this for a long time. Our staff can’t live like this, and we can’t live like this either.”

Indeed, she said she has one employee in a hand brace and another in a walking brace. Adding to staffing woes, the shop saw unexpected turnover this summer when employees took jobs out of state where housing was easier to secure. Moreover, a promising new hire with barista experience ultimately declined the job because she couldn’t find housing, Filice said.

In contrast, Law is able to house many of her employees, she said. She also hires J1 and H2B visa workers, which requires applying to the federal government and waiting to hear how many, if any, the government will grant. She also said she wishes J1 workers could stay longer because most depart in late September.

As for Pearl Street Bagels’ unprecedented move of closing for two days in August, Filice said, “we hope people just want us more.”

They chose Sundays because the afternoons are slow. But, she said: “Financially, it’s not a good decision to close anytime — not in the summer.”

— Jennifer Dorsey, Allie Gross and Tom Hallberg also contributed to this report.

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