Without Housing, Communities Struggle to Attract Summer Workers

By: - July 5, 2022 12:00 am

MEDORA, N.D. – Sam Walsh discovered seasonal work via an ad on TikTok, as a new high school graduate eager to experience life beyond his hometown of San Antonio. He landed his first job as a cashier at a gift shop at Zion National Park last spring, and soon got hooked on the lifestyle.

This summer, he’s cutting grass for .50 an hour during the day and selling popcorn and Pepsi for overtime at the nightly Medora Musical, a song-and-dance pageant set outdoors in an amphitheater with a view of the badlands near Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.

“When you work seasonal, the jobs are the least important part,” Walsh said. “You live in the middle of the park. So you have unlimited things to do. You don’t really spend any money either because food’s free, housing’s free. And then everything you want to do is free. Because you’re just right there in the middle of the park already.”

Walsh, now 19, has decided to postpone college for a few years so he can save money and travel between seasonal work contracts. His belongings fit into two suitcases and a backpack. He doesn’t own a car, and he pays just one monthly bill for his phone. If a job doesn’t offer free housing, Walsh said, “I don’t even apply.”

Although the summer workforce shortage has been particularly acute this year, the mismatch goes far beyond the national shortage of municipal lifeguards, camp counselors, wildland firefighters and resort housekeepers. There are more available jobs in the United States than workers to fill them, and not just in the service or hospitality sector. An estimated 11.5 million job openings exist for 5.5 million eligible workers, said Curtis Dubay, the chief economist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“This is impacting every industry in the country and every area of the country,” Dubay said. “Every business is having a hard time getting the workers they need to make their product or to provide their service.”

In places with seasonal economies and high housing costs or limited availability, one solution has emerged: Free housing.

Until this year, seasonal workers in Medora had to pay rent, said Clarence Sitter, the chief operating officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, which operates most of the amenities in town, including the musical that drew 124,000 visitors last year. (The musical had its own last-minute staffing scramble this year when its co-host of six years, Chet Wollan, had to step aside with vocal issues in May, just weeks before the show opened.)

Medora may be a small place—there are about 325 seasonal workers each summer in a town with a winter population of just 120 people. Compare that to the Jersey Shore, where more than 4,000 young seasonal workers will arrive from overseas this year on J-1 cultural exchange visas, many without housing.

But the tiny Western-themed town in the North Dakota badlands is illustrative of the scramble to hire a summer workforce each year.

In 2021, despite near-record visitor attendance at the musical, Medora couldn’t open its high-end dining room at the Rough Riders Hotel until well into the summer season. The hotel had no chef and lacked kitchen staff—in previous years it depended on foreign workers with H-2B visas to fill many restaurant and housekeeping jobs. The pandemic as well as Trump-era immigration policies slowed participation in the H-2B and J-1 visa programs.

Higher Salaries, Too

To attract more workers this year, Medora bumped up its starting wages by 20%, Sitter said, which was about as high as the foundation could go as a nonprofit employer. Other employers facing seasonal shortages also have raised compensation, with mixed results. President Joe Biden signed legislation boosting the base salaries of federal wildland firefighters. Some states, including Massachusetts, are offering retention bonuses to lifeguards who work all summer at state-run beaches and pools. The state also boosted lifeguard pay to as much as an hour.

“The labor market is extremely tight,” said Sitter, of the Medora foundation. “Inflation is putting pressure on employers to look at everything from not only just wages, but what other perks and benefits do they provide to the employees? One of the strategies that we employed to try to help us recruit that workforce is free housing.”

Sitter doesn’t have hard evidence that providing free housing has solved the group’s employment issues, but he’s certain it has helped leaders get to about 92% of their employment goal for the year. They’ve also been able to hire more H-2B and J-1 visa holders this year, though their foreign workforce is still not at its pre-pandemic level. They remain on the lookout for potential seasonal employees, Sitter said.

“It’s hard out there. We are already starting to recruit for next year,” Sitter said. “It becomes a 12-month, year-round process where we’re just continually hiring and continually seeking individuals.”

Within days of the flooding that destroyed housing for many employees in and around Yellowstone National Park about 450 miles to the West, Medora saw an influx of applicants. The flooding reflects a grim new reality in many communities in the West–already scarce housing is made even more precarious in remote places vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

North Dakota has ample experience addressing worker shortages, said Sara Otte Coleman, the state’s director of tourism and marketing. During the height of the oil boom a decade ago, high wages in the energy sector made it difficult to fill other jobs, including in hospitality. Those conditions have leveled out, Coleman said, but there still are more jobs than workers in the state. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are only 47 available workers for every 100 open jobs in North Dakota, the 10th highest mismatch in the country.

The state recently relaunched its “Find the Good Life” program to attract workers to the state. It has a relocation help desk that offers one-on-one consultations with so-called “community champions” who will help applicants find jobs and neighborhoods.

“Workforce is an issue,” Coleman said. “It’s a priority issue. We market the state to workers, to businesses, to investors, to all of it, not just visitors. So we really see that overlap and see the need to try and elevate how critical the shortages are.”

Longer-term Solutions

In Montana’s tourism-based communities, many people joke that there always are plenty of jobs; everyone has two or three. And businesses and employees do adapt even if it’s a strain, or they must embrace unwelcome options, said Pat Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. People put up with long commutes to work, or they share housing. At many hotels, staffing shortages mean rooms are cleaned less frequently than they once were during multi-night stays. Restaurant jobs go unfilled and operating hours are curtailed.

“A lot of problems are being solved, but we don’t like the solutions,” Barkey said.

In the Idaho resort communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, people joke that you either own two to three homes or you hold down two to three jobs, said Kris Gilarowski, who works as a housekeeping manager at a high-end hotel. Gilarowski became a housing advocate last year when many working people he knew lost their housing.

The region’s housing crisis got so bad that one proposed solution last summer was to allow seasonal workers to camp in tents in the Ketchum town square. It was a far-fetched proposal that nonetheless put the issue “out into the open,” he said.

For seasonal workers who like a community and decide to stay, a temporary job can lead to a career in travel or tourism or other regional job specialties. In his first assignment at Zion National Park, Walsh found that he was promoted quickly, even though he’s young and had limited experience. And in Medora, he said, it’s easy to make more than an hour in overtime by working the concession stand at the musical.

But Walsh said his favorite seasonal job so far has been the one that paid the least: building trails, planting trees and monitoring endangered plant species in the West for six months with the American Conservation Experience. It was a seasonal gig that may lead to a career–although not quite yet.

“I know I’m not going to do this forever,” he said, “but I’m just trying to enjoy it while it works out. You have so much freedom that I just don’t want to give it up yet.”

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Erika Bolstad
Erika Bolstad

Erika Bolstad is a Stateline correspondent based in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Windfall, published by Sourcebooks in 2023. Previously, she wrote for E&E News, the McClatchy Washington Bureau and the Miami Herald.