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'The coin has flipped': Mountain towns struggle to attract summer workers

The town of Frisco says it's never had so many openings so close to summer.

COLORADO, USA — A long-awaited, hopefully almost-normal summer is just around the corner. Mountain towns like Frisco plan to bring back programs and services they had to scale back last year. But town leaders say a shortage of workers could get in the way of their summer plans.

"I've never, in my 10 years on council and one year as mayor had this problem or even had to have it be a discussion," said Frisco Mayor Hunter Mortensen.

Frisco has about 40 seasonal positions to fill. The town started the week with 50, interim town manager Jeff Durbin said, but they could make a few offers. Still, they're short on people to staff the marina, trails, youth camps and special events.

"Those are all the departments that make our town so wonderful and make people want to visit Frisco," Mortensen said. "It's the lifestyle we all live and want, but that doesn't sell it anymore."

Mortensen said he believes last summer's limitations drove away the workers who would typically snap up the seasonal jobs.

"When COVID came, there were no jobs for them, and there was no certainty, so they went back home, or they went to other places with a little more structure," he said. "They haven't come back yet, and I don't know what it's going to take to bring them back."

The town is exploring raising wages and other solutions that might draw people in. Most of the seasonal jobs listed on Frisco's job board have a starting pay between $12.50 and $13.50 an hour.

The town council in Dillon already agreed to raise starting wages from $13.50 to $15.

"There's a shortage of employees in every business and every community up here," Durbin said. "That competition is driving some changes in terms of compensation packages."

It's an odd spot to be in after more than a year of neighborly collaboration to manage the pandemic. Durbin and Mortensen now find themselves competing for workers against other towns and businesses within their own community.

"What we've all prided ourselves on is how the last 14 months we've worked together as one entire community," Mortensen said. "Now we're through this, and the coin has flipped. It's sad to fight against other towns and our small businesses, but we're all looking for the same thing right now."

They point to the town's limited and often expensive housing supply as another factor driving its hiring struggles. Frisco is working with neighboring towns and businesses to develop new approaches for recruiting and housing, Mortensen said.

"I'm optimistic that we don't have to make the hard decisions that we're worried about in terms of cutting back programs, services or levels of service," Durbin said. "But we still have a ways to go to get there." 

Mortensen hopes visitors to Frisco will be prepared with empathy and patience when interacting with employees who may find themselves stretched thin.

"If it takes a little longer to get a pizza or check out at the grocery store, don't blame the poor people taking care of them," he said. "They're working so hard, but there aren't enough of them to really provide that level of service that we've all come to expect."

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