By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
“Now Hiring” signs are everywhere in Cody. And while businesses in tourist towns seem to go through the same struggle every year to find workers, this year is especially difficult, according to employers.
Tracey Locke, the manager of Cody’s Boot Barn, said working with insufficient staff is a regular problem right now.
“We’re open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, so we have a lot of business coming in and out,” she said. “Yesterday was busier than we expected, and we were short staffed for the day.”
Locke said it has been difficult just to get people to turn in applications, let alone accept a job offer.
“I mean, if we can get them in the door and talk about the commissions and stuff, we might get them,” she said. “But I’ve had people schedule interviews, and then not even show up for interviews.”
Brenda O’Shea and her husband own and operate A Western Rose Motel, just a block from downtown Cody. She said the extra unemployment benefits that are currently being offered by the federal government are a big hinderance to getting local workers to apply.
“I’ve had two girls apply (who have asked), ‘Are you going to pay me under the table?’ ‘Why would I do that?’ ‘Because it’s going to affect my benefits if I make too much money.’”
The labor shortage is putting a strain on many local businesses, which in turn is affecting consumers.
“Dairy Queen has closed their lobby, Wendy’s is closing their lobby,” O’Shea said.
In an effort to entice workers, employers are offering unique benefits.
Some are advertising starting wages at $15 per hour or more. Some are offering signing bonuses. For small businesses like A Western Rose Motel, though, that kind of compensation isn’t realistic – so they offer other benefits.
“I provide free housing,” O’Shea said. “I have a two-bedroom home, no rent, (and I pay) $500 a week each.”
For Boot Barn, it’s the employee discount that can give help lure workers, according to Locke.
“We can’t compete with the $15 an hour, but our employee discount program that we have in here is top notch,” she said. “Like, we get 40% to 50% of our products off the retail cost. So that seems to be a huge benefit if you wear western clothing.”
But it’s not just the lack of local workers that’s affecting local businesses — it’s also the inability to hire workers from other countries.
O’Shea said their hotel has relied on foreign exchange students from China in years past, but not this year.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Cody, Wyoming, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Jersey Shore – it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Very few people are getting foreign exchange students.”
With those potential workers unable to travel to the U.S. this year because of coronavirus restrictions, O’Shea and two other employees are doing the work that eight or nine people have done in the past.
“I no longer live in my house, I live in a motel room,” she said, “because obviously my co-workers need days off, and when you own your own business you get to work all the time, and everyone’s experiencing that right now.”
Locke is in the same situation at the retail store. She said she is working extra hours just to keep the doors open.
“This week alone I hit 40 hours yesterday morning,” she said. “So, I worked a 12-hour day yesterday, and then I’m going to work a 12-hour day today.”
Locke is optimistic, though, that as the summer continues and employment benefits return to pre-pandemic rules, more people will be going back to work.
“I think we’re all crossing our fingers and hoping, like, mid-June, last part of June, when that unemployment changes, that we’ll see an uptick in applications, hopefully.”
“I mean, we’re just at the beginning of the tunnel, it hasn’t even really begun yet,” O’Shea said. “And we know that we have a short amount of time to make a year’s worth of income, so we’re trying our best. We’ll get through it.”