Walk around Jackson this summer, and you can expect to see a few things: lots of people, lots of traffic, and lots of help wanted signs.
“That is the impression,” said Anna Olson, the president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce.
“The business owners I’ve spoken to would say, ‘Oh yes, we’re always one or two less than what we want.’ You know, that is the sort of the nature of the business,” she said.
Despite all the signs, Olson said she’s heard from businesses that the flow of visa workers has actually been pretty steady this year. That’s because Jackson relies heavily on foreign student workers, also known as the J-1 visa program.
“We have a fortunate situation in some ways that our J-1 visa situation has been reliable this year. And talking to some resorts, and talking to some individual small town businesses and retailers, they have seen either J-1s returning or new J-1s here. And it hasn’t been a great source of concern actually getting people into jobs,” said Olson.
Jackson has moved away from the much more cumbersome H-2B visa program in favor of student workers, and unlike Cody, Jackson has had good luck with those workers. The reasons businesses in Jackson are having trouble finding workers is simple; it’s difficult to find adequate and affordable housing in Jackson.
“What we’re hearing more is that the cost of living is one of the biggest challenges. Cost of rents, rents are rising,” said Anna Olson.
According to the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division, the average two-bedroom, unfurnished apartment in Jackson costs a little over $1,900 a month. The other problem is that there aren’t a lot of available places to rent.
Clarene Law runs Town Square Inns, a group of family-owned hotels in Jackson. She said her businesses have been able to hire enough workers this summer, but housing presents a challenge.
“I see that if we can address housing I think it solves a great deal of this problem,” Law said.
Law said Town Square Inns has been forced to provide employee housing for a fee.
“We actually put up about 100 people in the summertime. It’s not great, you know just dormitory style, just whatever you can do. But without some sort of housing it’s very difficult to recruit,” said Law.
Law has been a business owner since 1962. Starting out, she said her family did a lot of the work themselves, cleaning rooms, folding laundry, and keeping the books. When the season was over, they got a break. The tourism season back then was shorter.
“There was a time that we used to put a sign up right after Labor Day that said, ‘Gone Fishing’ and I’d take the children down the Snake River and sit on a gravel bank and catch trout. Those days are long past,” said Law.
That’s because there are more visitors year-round. And hiring local workers is not an option.
As of May 2018, Wyoming had a 3.7 percent unemployment rate, and the lowest population of any state in the country. Chris Brown, the executive director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association, said, those two things mean the businesses have to turn to guest worker programs.
While Jackson is actively working on the issue of housing, Brown said tackling immigration reform in Congress is also critical.
“Our country as a whole hasn’t addressed comprehensive immigration reform. There’s a real need for foreign workers in the United States. There’s simply certain jobs that Americans…there either aren’t enough Americans or they’re unwilling to fill those jobs,” Brown said.
Hotel owner Clarene Law has spoken to Wyoming’s Congressional Delegation about the need for more avenues for legal immigration. She says she wants a year-round stable workforce, and seeing her employees achieve green cards is part of that.
“Sometimes it’s taken them as much as eight years of going and coming legally. That’s the kind of program I want to encourage but I want to shorten the time span. And you know, to have the proper vetting done. And have them contributing members of the United States of America,” Law said.
So while adding student employees in Jackson has worked, many businesses admit they would like something a little more stable. But it may take a congressional solution to get there.