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Amidst A Record-Breaking Tourism Year Businesses Struggle To Stay Afloat Without Sufficient Employees

Premier Best Western Hotel in Cody, Wyoming
Kamila Kudelska
Wyoming Public Radio
The Best Western in Cody, Wyoming.

Renee Nash knocked on the door of a guest room at the Best Western in Cody. She waited a moment to hear if there was any response and then opened the door. Nash, the housekeeping laundry manager for Sunset Properties, which owns the two Best Westerns in Cody, has been really busy this summer season. Usually, her housekeeping staff is about 53 to 55 but this year she only has 27. So she's been working pretty much non-stop.

"We work hard," she said. "But, we don't do in houses now. So we're not going in and we're not doing full services."

It doesn't help that the start of this season has been busier than ever. Some businesses have seen typical July numbers in June. That's never happened before.

Sunset Properties Owner Bill Garlow said if they don't get more employees, "we may have to shut some [hotel rooms] down. I don't know, Renee wants to keep it open."

Nash cut in, "Let me tell you, so Bill likes to worry. But I told him, 'Don't worry till I tell you when to worry.'"

But closing some rooms could be a possibility. It's a catch 22 because currently, the majority of the room rates are higher than ever. It's not just hotels. Around the state, businesses are either limiting their hours or closing altogether because they can't hire enough employees. This comes as the northwest region of Wyoming is seeing a record number of tourists.

"It's not so much that they're not good enough. It's we're just not getting enough," said John Rodgers, the general manager at Cody's Dairy Queen.

 An advertisement that says "Now hiring all positions inquire within! Housekeepers $15 Hr." at Blair Hotels on main street in Cody, Wyoming.
Kamila Kudelska
Wyoming Public Radio
An advertisement for housekeeping jobs at Blair Hotels on main street in Cody, Wyoming.

Rodgers said they aren't getting people applying for positions. They've increased wages and are even offering a $1,000 bonus if workers stay for the entire summer season. But that hasn't really worked.

"I think part of it is because of the employee benefits that they've been given. With the extra unemployment and stuff, I think that's hurt us quite a bit," said Rodgers.

Garlow and Nash agreed with Rodgers. They think people aren't applying for jobs because they are getting benefits higher than they normally would be paid. Those benefits pay out $300 per week and are part of the CARES act signed by former President Trump in March 2020.

"The unemployment benefits definitely affect labor supply," said David Bullard, a senior economist at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, Research and Planning.

He said the benefits are non-labor income meaning that the workers collect the money without working. Governor Mark Gordon is putting an end to that benefit on June 19. Bullard said that should have an impact.

"I expect that will cause some kind of shift in the labor supply curve and more people will be willing to work at that point," he said.

Finding summer workers is always a problem in the state. That's why businesses in tourism communities like Cody have focused on hiring foreign workers.

"We do depend on them," said hotel owner Bill Garlow.

That's because even when they were able to hire locals, it was never enough. The Best Westerns usually get 40 H-2B visa workers. Those are foreign workers that fill temporary housekeeping, maintenance and construction jobs.

"For years, up until 2018, we didn't have any problems. We just got the 40 every year," said Garlow.

In 2018, there was a change in regulations. This year hasn't been any easier because COVID restrictions are slowing things down further. Garlow has only been able to get 17 H-2B visa workers so far. He's hoping that will change soon. Meanwhile, at Dairy Queen, John Rodgers was unable to get any of his usual foreign student visa workers or J-1 visa employees.

"That hurt a lot. Because we had four Russian guys lined up and they were going to be part of our kitchen crew, you know, cooking force," said Rodgers. "And at the last minute, we couldn't get them."

He's still looking for cooks. While he's been able to depend on Cody high school students to keep the business open, he's worried if he doesn't get any cooks lined up that his employees may get burned out. Rodgers hopes he'll be able to find some more local help, especially in the form of older adults, once unemployment benefits expire.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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