Jackson businesses turn to unconventional means to tackle housing, staff shortages
Bradly J. Boner, Jackson Hole News&Guide photos
JACKSON —When May hit, Hannah Pollat started to throw in the towel.
“It was an emotional battle, accepting that I had to leave,” she said.
But a few weeks later, Pollat, a 24-year-old barista and recently graduated nurse, is still here.
Her employer, Ali Cohane offered her a place to stay: her guest room. Cohane owns Picnic, Coelette and Persephone Bakery with her husband, Kevin. Pollat took her up on the offer.
The move puts Cohane among a cohort of businesses trying unconventional things to stay afloat as a busy summer gets off to a fast start and housing makes it difficult to find employees.
Workers like Pollat are struggling to find housing or keep the place they call home. That has employers and employees like Pollat and Cohane living in less-than-normal proximity, and other businesses changing things up.
Some restaurants, like Local and Trio, are shutting down on Saturday and Sunday. Others, like Cafe Genevieve, are not opening for dinner. And companies like Cowboy Coffee are considering other operational changes, aiming to balance staffing — and staff morale — with a deluge of visitors.
“Rather than stretching everybody too thin and doing as much business as we possibly could,” Trio and Local general manager Jess Wireman said, “this is us saying, ‘Hold up.’
“We’re just trying to maintain a level of mental, emotional and physical health,” she said.
Pollat was a University of Wyoming nursing student this winter, completing her capstone at St. John’s Health. But the housing pinch meant she wasn’t able to accept a job with the hospital.
And, set to be out of the Cohanes’ guest room by the end of August, Pollat may still have to leave if she can’t find somewhere to live.
Though she’s coming to terms with that, she recognized that many people are struggling.
“There’s this feeling in the air of frustration about it right now,” Pollat said. “So many people are dealing with it. And I think people share in this collective feeling of animosity and grief.”
In late May, Cohane was looking to fill about 40 of the 150 positions across her and her husband’s businesses. She has managed to hire about 20 people but is still considering closing on certain days.
That tracks with a Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce survey showing that 50 percent of the 250 or so firms polled were considering adjusting operations because of the staffing shortage.
That’s part of the reason Cohane moved Pollat in.
From January to May the barista and nurse looked for a spot to live. She scoured the 22 Rents Facebook as she moved between friends’ open rooms.
“I was just on top of it,” Pollat said. “I would check that thing many times a day, and I would respond within minutes to new listings. That was the only way to have a chance.”
But nothing came through. When May came around, she still hadn’t found a place.
So she started to come to terms with leaving, which would include giving up the summer job at Persephone that had helped her pay her way through school. But when she told her employer, Pollat said, Cohane, who she described as “her boss’s boss,” offered her the room.
“I have no housing that I can find, but I have a spare bedroom, and despite the fact that that’s my one sanctuary, I don’t care,” Cohane remembered thinking. She needed summer employees.
Pollat said Cohane’s offer was “so generous.” But she recognized the reality.
“They needed staff,” Pollat said. “They needed help.”
What Pollat — and restaurants like Persephone — was dealing with wasn’t necessarily new.
Housing and staffing have always been tough in Jackson Hole, and Cohane said she’d offered up her room before, usually to returning employees like Pollat whom she’s comfortable with.
But this summer Jackson Hole is experiencing its own version of the national labor shortage, one where housing is front and center. The Chamber of Commerce’s poll showed that 94.5% of the companies surveyed believe housing underpins their staffing woes.
Not all Teton County businesses have been seriously impacted. Some, who are able to provide some sort of housing for their staff, are operating at more or less normal levels.
That includes Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Resort spokeswoman Anna Cole said the ski resort is housing roughly 110 of its 500 summer employees, and has about 30 jobs available. That, she said, is about average for a normal summer, like those before the pandemic.
“Our housing is a huge contributor to the staff we do get,” Cole said. “You can’t take a job if you don’t have a place to live.”
Lewis and Clark River Expeditions is in a similar boat.
James Peck, who co-owns the whitewater outfit with his wife, Karen Youngblood, said their 25- to 30-person operation is fully staffed. But he knocked on wood as he said it.
“It helps to have housing,” he told the News&Guide. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Lewis and Clark has an RV that people stay in and a deed-restricted housing unit south of town. Some workers live with family in the valley. And many river guides are resourceful and sleep in their cars.
Other places don’t have a dorm building at their disposal.
St. John’s can offer some employees a home, but it’s still dealing with housing issues.
CEO Will Wagnon said that in April 2020 the hospital was looking at a 5-percent annual turnover rate. A year later, in March 2021, that had bumped up to 11 percent.
Comparing individual months, the issue becomes more stark.
Wagnon said the turnover rate for the month of April 2020 was 5 percent. In March 2021 it was 20 percent.
There are, of course, compounding factors, like staff burnout after a year of pandemic health care.
But the hospital still placed part of the blame for those numbers on housing.
“The last 12 people that left left because, they said, ‘I can’t find housing, or I’ve lost my housing,’” Human Resources Director Thom Kinney told the News&Guide.
Businesses owners who spoke with the News&Guide felt similarly.
Cowboy Coffee recently built a drive-thru and, on top of it, a few apartments. The housing crunch hit this spring, only a few months after those units were completed.
“I thought we’d be good for a little bit,” Cowboy co-owner Rob Ottaway said. “But then things started to spiral out of control.”
In the past, Ottaway said, he and the coffee shop’s other co-owner, Pete MacIlwaine, heard of housing issues in waves, usually when a few people were kicked out of their homes. But Ottaway said things accelerated this spring.
Wireman, of Local and Trio, said those businesses were having trouble adding the staff they usually do to make things work over the summer. But longtime employees were also struggling.
“We were watching some of our tenured employees, guys who have worked for us for eight and 10 years, losing housing situations that they thought were super stable,” she said.
She said those people were “kind of in a panic, flailing to find things.”
Pollat, who has for years worked seasonally for Persephone, more or less gave up after five months.
“It was almost like, ‘Might as well have not done it that whole time,’” Pollat said of her housing search. “It was just nearly impossible to get something.”
Fighting an uphill battle to find staff, businesses are changing things up.
The hospital has been hiring more travel nurses than usual to deliver the same standard of care. And the housing situation is making the sell to potential workers like Pollat more difficult.
Kinney used to be able to explain the high cost of living in Jackson Hole to potential candidates in part by saying something along the lines of “You’re paying for the view.” But “when you’ve got the vacancy in apartments at zero,” Kinney said, “I can’t say that.”
The valley’s largest rental complexes — the Blair Place Apartments, Hidden Hollow, Aspen Meadows and The Timbers — reported a 0% vacancy rate in February.
Trio and Local both decided not to hire extra workers for the summer. That, and wanting to prevent burnout in the staff they did have, led them to close on Saturdays and Sundays.
“We were like, holy cow, we got to take care of the people that we have, that are good, and not try and pack in this additional 10% of staff or stretch anybody too thin,” Wireman said. “Even though we’ve come through this year pretty well, pretty solid, I think it’s been draining on everybody in every sense — and especially the front-of-house staff.”
Ottaway and Cohane are also both considering changing up their hours.
Cohane hasn’t yet. Neither has Ottaway. But he and MacIlwaine haven’t been able to run the drive-thru from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. like they want to because they haven’t been able to hire enough people.
And, while they have more or less managed to staff the coffee shop on Town Square, they’re considering cutting back hours there for the same reasons as Trio and Local.
“It’s just not an enjoyable job when you’re getting bombarded 24/7,” Ottaway said.
This summer, midday lulls are fewer and farther between than past seasons.
“Keeping people fresh is more important than staying open fully,” he said. “It might be the first time in history where we go back to full hours for the off-season rather than the summer season.”
Kim Kent, the team leader at New West Knife Works on Town Square, said she was concerned about the rest of the summer — but not necessarily about the knife shop. New West is more or less OK staffing-wise, she said. But the morning she spoke with the News&Guide she said she’d just learned that a new employee was scheduled to lose their housing. And, as a service industry veteran and former Local employee, she shared concerns for her former colleagues.
“I think it’s going to be rough,” she said, thinking about the rest of the summer as shoppers came in and out of the shop and people streamed past on the boardwalk outside.
“Especially for hospitality and businesses that can’t find staff it’s just going to get harder and harder,” Kent said. “The staff that they have is going to get burnt out.”
Cohane couched the worries about the summer changes with a caveat. She feels lucky to run a restaurant in Jackson “when so many restaurants in the country are going out of business.”
“But just trying to figure out how we continue to sustainably do this is the challenge,” she said.
The same is true for workers.
After six years of living in Jackson Hole on and off and using her wages from the valley to put herself through school, Pollatt is wrapping her head around her situation.
At first she was bitter about not being able to find a place to live.
But more recently she’s been working with acceptance. She recognized that there’s anger toward people who moved here to work remotely, a factor officials have said is exacerbating the housing problem. But she said she doesn’t blame them, or anyone, and doesn’t want to feel entitled to live in Jackson Hole. That has her considering moving.
“I haven’t quite come to terms with it because I still hope that I can stay here,” she said.
In the meantime she’s taking a breather and staying off 22 Rents for a few weeks. But she knows she’ll have to start the search again soon if she wants to stay in the valley.