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Mile Post: Workers hard to come by

A familiar sign in many Park City business windows.

While many beloved businesses temporarily closed their doors last spring due to COVID-19, the Park City economy rebounded from the shutdowns quickly. And with vaccines readily available and businesses reopened to the public or increasing capacity, the pieces are in place for a continued economic boom.

The only thing missing is the workers.

Across the country, businesses in the service industry like retail shops and restaurants are ready to kick things into high gear but struggling to find staff to hire. Jennifer Wesselhoff, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/ Bureau, said the hiring situation is a nationwide crisis and Park City is not immune.



“With declining fertility rates, baby boomers leaving the workforce, women not re-entering the workplace, the uncertainty of kids in school and virtually no-net migration growth in Summit County, the labor supply has dwindled to the point of crisis level,” she said.

Wesselhoff said businesses are taking steps such as closing for lunch or on certain days, raising wages, enhancing benefits and allowing more schedule flexibility to attract and retain staff, “but the situation is dire now and will only increase during peak winter season.”



Wesselhoff said the end of federal unemployment insurance has brought some more people back to the workforce, but not enough to fill every open position.

“Everyone is short-staffed,” she said. “There is no one to fill the gaps. But our businesses are resilient.”

She said the shoulder season basically no longer exists, and that’s left service industry workers further exhausted.

“Owners, managers and supervisors are cleaning rooms and washing dishes,” she said.

Brooks Kirchheimer, co-owner of Hearth & Hill in Newpark, said he thinks just about every restaurant in the Park City area has at least one opening posted.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure we are fully staffed, but inevitably the problem facing the entire hospitality industry is that many former employees have changed careers or relocated, which has created a shortage of candidates,” he said.

Kirchheimer said his restaurant has offered full medical benefits to full-time employees since it opened, and has gone further in order to attract employees: a 401k with a company match after a year of employment and a free daily family meal, to name a few perks.

“In addition, we give our current associates a referral bonus if they have a friend join our team,” he said. “Plus, we’re a growing company, so we’re able to offer career advancement opportunities.”

A common refrain from current and potential employees, Kirchheimer said, is a desire for a comfortable workplace, even over higher wages.

“For many, the pandemic put a lot of things in perspective, so employees are seeking out opportunities that suit their personal desires for the future as well,” he said. “Basically, they prefer to be at a place that they enjoy and feel valued personally as people and not just as employees.”

A point of frustration Kirchheimer said he and other employers in the service industry are facing is that employees are much more likely to walk off the job abruptly.

“Because the landscape has shifted and the demand is so high for workers, those employees will probably get hired somewhere else in town the same day,” he said.

Shirin Spangenberg, who co-owns Escape Room Park City, said she recently had an employee walk out within an hour of their first shift after receiving an attractive offer from their former employer to return.

“It’s an employee market right now,” she said. “We have paid more, cut back our hours and are now thinking of shutting down a couple of days a week.”

Escape Room Park City was about to move into a new location so it could expand, Spangenberg said, but she decided not to out of fear of being unable to staff it adequately. She said many of the employees who would normally commute in from surrounding “bedroom” communities like Heber City no longer have to do so, as they can work from home for similar pay.

“They don’t need to come to Park City for a bigger paycheck,” she said. “The solutions are hard to find.”

Both Wesselhoff and Kirchheimer pointed to the potential return of foreign workers on J-1 visas this winter as a potential boon, though it will not be enough to fill the current gap. Looking further into the future, Kirchheimer said he is hopeful more permanent solutions can be found.

“I know this is a hot topic, but affordable housing will be crucial to the growing economy of Park City,” he said. “As this town has always been a center for tourism and hospitality, it’s important for us to have permanent residents to create a more robust workforce to support those industries.

“In order to do that, Park City needs to ensure it is equitable to all with fair housing options, which will only attract more workers to the area as we continue to grow.”


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Milepost

Park City Mile Post 2021

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Welcome to The Park Record’s 2021 edition of Mile Post, our annual report on key indicators in our changing community.



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