Hiring signs and ones announcing reduced hours or services are displayed at many Cody businesses.

Around lunchtime at the new Wyoming Roadhouse restaurant, operation manager Kelly Brainerd’s employees were busy working in the kitchen, yet the dining room of the business sat empty. Although the business was closed to the public, the staff was already prepping for dinner with a limited menu because they didn’t have enough employees to serve lunch.

“It’s a crisis what we’re going through,” said Brainerd, who also runs operations at Millstone and More Burgers and Shakes.

Likewise, Cody Steakhouse has not been able to keep enough staff to be open for lunch.

The Roadhouse is offering its cooks $18 per hour. There are plenty of hours to go around, Brainerd said, with most of his employees working 13-hour days.

“It’s not working at all,” he said. “We’re giving out raises like candy on Halloween.”

Julie Cocchia, co-owner of Cody Steakhouse, likewise, is offering substantial overtime and competitive wages just so she can keep her business open.

“I have three line guys, a chef, all three guys working six days a week just to stay open,” she said. “They don’t mind overtime, I don’t mind overtime to stay open. You’ve got to be open. We don’t want to miss it because we did last year.”

It’s a theme shared by many businesses in Cody right as they deal with a second-straight summer of adversity, a contrast to the typical boon provided by tourist travel. While the coronavirus slowed tourist travel for much of last summer, but this summer lack of customers isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s the staff needed to serve them.

“This was the busiest May I’ve ever seen,” Brainerd said. “We’re not even in July yet. This is bad.”

Many businesses are offering incentives like bonuses and higher wages to lure employees in, but for most, this has produced lackluster results.

Dairy Queen is offering its employees a $1 per hour bonus that can be redeemed if they make it through the summer, while Zapata’s is also offering similar programs.

“It brought in a few but not nearly as much as I thought it would,” John Rogers, general manager of DQ, said. “We’re still hurting.”

Despite having 30 employees on staff, Rogers said they could easily use about 10 more. They are just barely holding with current staffing levels and any employee attrition could be the tipping point for the soft-serve ice cream business.

Many are blaming the shortage of workers on the federal government’s expanded unemployment coverage that was put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This expanded coverage will expire in Wyoming in mid-June.

“When you can make $37,000 per year off of unemployment, why would you feel the need to make some money?” Brainerd said.

At least 125 Park County residents are in line to lose unemployment insurance benefits after June 19.

Still, optimism isn’t high among employers regarding hopes of reaching a stable workforce by summer’s end.

“We’ve tried everything,” said Connie Mowatt, owner of Zapata’s.

Lack of access to J-1 and H-2B workers is also contributing to the employee shortage. Mowatt said she wasted around $3,000 trying to go through the H-2B process for this summer with no employees granted to her. Rogers may have had it even worse.

“We had four Russians lined up to come to Cody, but at the last second that fell through,” Rogers said. “That really hurt.”

However one constant that is working for a number of Cody businesses is the quantity of front staff. It’s not surprising, as these workers typically reel in respectable wages during the summer months from their earnings in tips.

“The team I’ve got now is awesome,” Mowatt said.

Ashley Grant, manager of Taco Johns in Cody, said while she has the most staff on the payroll as she’s had in her years running the establishment, she’s struggling because she doesn’t have enough consistent employees.

“If we actually hire people, they tend to show up the first three days, then they just want to come in when they want,” she said. “It’s crazy.”

Many people will fill out an application but then never respond to calls for an interview. Or she’ll interview someone on the spot, hire them and they won’t show up for work.

“This year has been uniquely tough,” she said. “Some people just don’t want to work.”

Grant said many of her employees are in their teens, and while her 14-and 15-year-olds are great and easy to mold, they have limitations on when they can work and how much.

Like most other places in town, she’s rolling out the red carpet to get more employees. Starting pay is $13 an hour, and she’s allowing employees to dress more casually, and everyone who stays until the end of the summer will get a $1 per hour bonus for every hour worked.

Rogers similarly has had an easier time finding 14-and 15-year-olds who are willing to work. But, also like Grant, he needs the 20-40 year olds to work later into the day and have more food service experience to keep the business in a comfortable position. Cocchia is experiencing a similar problem.

“I don’t know where they are, I don’t know where they go,” she said. “They start at 19-20 years old, grow out of it.”

Mowatt has had similar issues at Zapata’s, where she had two employees recently walk off the job in the middle of their shifts. Zapata’s, a Sheridan Avenue fixture, was only open four days last week and this week is bumping up to five. For a business that sorely depends on summer business as it closes during the winter months, being fewer than seven days a week just doesn’t add up.

“Like everybody else, we’re frustrated as heck,” Mowatt said. “We’re just taking it day-by-day.”

After nearly 30 years in business, she said she has never seen Cody like this.

This year, Mowatt has brought her son Tom Pearson on to help her run the business. Mowatt said if it weren’t for his encouragement and motivation, she would have already called it for the summer.

Mowatt is frustrated that the City of Cody and Chamber of Commerce aren’t doing more to help businesses with employee shortages. She said these entities should offer services to help employers weed through the H-2B process.

“Nobody has any employees, you can see it all over town,” she said. “They need to offer more help, not just let us sit out here and flounder.”

(10) comments

Kyle Smith

In a town with the market on the rise and all the rentals turning to Airbnb's where are all the workers supposed to live?

Justin Smith

All I can tell you is that I used to work seasonal jobs in tourist towns but the cost of doing that has gone up every year of my life and the pay hasn't. It used to be pretty easy to find a room to rent and throw all your stuff in your car and move somewhere for the summer but there is a huge list of reasons that is harder now.

sam quentin

“When you can make $37,000 per year off of unemployment, why would you feel the need to make some money?” Brainerd said.

Ahh, the quality of "news" when uninformed & exagerated opinion is counted as that "news".

Whom exactly is getting $37,000/yr on unemployment?

As per the state, the average weekly unemployment benefit is $412. The "covid" bonus added $300.

That's $712, for a max 24 weeks.

Which is $17,088.

Add another $11,536 for 28 weeks of regular average $412/wk (which is just an average, with actual benefits based on prior earnings, thus much lower for low wage workers) benefits (to make a full 52 wk year).

That makes $28,624 total.

So again, whom exactly is making $37,000/yr on unemployment?

Where is the outrage over the other trillions in free money, mostly handed to corporations, the already wealthy & governments/bureaucrats?

Or the fact the 1% went into the "pandemic" with an ~38% savings rate, but still got free government handouts, via stimulus under Trump?

More massive emergency free money has gone out over the past couple of years than went out during the Great Depression (even adjusting for inflation).

Because the economy is truly is that disastrous a condition.

With hundreds of billions in repo to support banks. QE (not QE) increasingly massively. FED backed mortgage securities reaching an all-time high. Dangerously low interest rates (creating massive housing, stock & other asset bu bubbles), the FED's elimination of banking reserve requirements, etc.

This nation is facing many unaddressed & massive economic woes.

And spreading bad info isn't helping. The "news" should promulgate facts, not myth.

Scott Conger

Persons receiving Pandemic Unemployment benefits will be able to receive them for a total of 79 weeks, and will end (as of writing), Sept. 6, 2021). State unemployment is has all but doubled from 24 to 53 weeks. To me, with an old-tyme education, that comes to well in excess of 1 years worth of benefits. Now, those are the facts...https://www.brookings.edu/podcast-episode/congress-extended-unemployment-benefits-what-should-come-next/

Christopher Pfister


And to the other commenters, Unemployment Insurance is not "free money" -- it is exactly what it is called: insurance for those who lose a job, funded by employers as we have agreed as a society. From WY Dept. of Workforce Services:

1. What is Unemployment Insurance?

Unemployment InsuranceA program under which a person, who is unemployed through no fault of his or her own, is paid weekly benefits based upon his or her past wages in employment covered by state or federal laws.Opens in New Window is a benefitThe monetary amount paid to an unemployed or partially unemployed worker.Opens in New Window available to persons out of work through no fault of their own. It replaces part of the income you lose when you become unemployed. Wyoming benefits are financed entirely by covered employers.

2. Who can file for Unemployment Insurance?

You can file for unemploymentAny week in which you perform no services and receive no wages, or work less than full-time and wages payable for that week are less than your weekly benefit amount.Opens in New Window insurance if you are partially or totally unemployed.

3. Who qualifies for Unemployment Insurance?

Unemployment InsuranceA program under which a person, who is unemployed through no fault of his or her own, is paid weekly benefits based upon his or her past wages in employment covered by state or federal laws.Opens in New Window is available if you have earned sufficient wage creditsWages earned by a person working in employment which is covered by unemployment compensation. In Wyoming, you must have worked at least two quarters of your base period, and earned a minimum of $3,800 during your base period to be eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits. You must also have a total base period earnings of 1.4 times your highest quarter.Opens in New Window and are unemployedAny week in which you perform no services and receive no wages, or work less than full-time and wages payable for that week are less than your weekly benefit amount.Opens in New Window through no fault of your own.

You are required to be able, available, and actively seeking work for each week you file a claim for payment.

Dave Buckles

I don't know what the answer is. I have lived in Wyoming for 30 yrs. Now, Cody for 15. I have enjoyed watching the less than capable and desirable have to move out, but that has not helped the capable...so, you can understand my dilemma.

sam quentin

Those restaurants (those suffering the greatest employee shortages) need to raise their prices, to pay better wages.

If people are too lazy to even cook for themselves, they should have to pay for that convenience.

Low paid "servants" shouldn't have to subsidize the lifestyles of the lazy.

An economy only works, thrives & grows when people spend money (i.e. when money circulates).

There is currently a massive problem with economic inequality (refer to the WTID & GINI), with the top earners hoarding much of their wealth (the top 1% saving ~38%, the top .001% saving up to 60%).

That saving/hoarding is the enemy of economic growth (the more money that is held back from spending, the less spending, hence the less economic growth).

Massive hoarding & greed by the ultra-wealthy preceded the Great Depression.

As did massive wealth & asset concentration.

Scott Conger

The wealthy do not bury their money in the ground. They put it to work building businesses (sometimes going broke in the process), employing people and generally creating more wealth for many people including themselves * the horror of it all!!*. Anyone who believes that wealthy people hoard money believe that this money is a finite resource that is limited to others if the wealthy have it all. Sorry, but that all went out the window in 1933 when we went off of the gold standard. I have to assume that you spent your life as an employee and not a business owner, as these are basic concepts which are unfortunately not taught in school and only learned from experience. The way to wealth is not to take it from someone else. The way to wealth is to risk what little you have to start, find a need that everyone has and then work like the dickens to fulfill that need. It's really simple and does not necessarily require a college education...particularly a very expensive education in a field which has no hope of paying back the investment much less lay the foundation for an easier and more prosperous life.

Justin Smith

Scott Conger wrote: "The wealthy do not bury their money in the ground. They put it to work building businesses (sometimes going broke in the process), employing people and generally creating more wealth for many people including themselves"

The lie about trickle down economics we have been force fed our whole lives. If it were true then so many "wealth management" businesses wouldn't exist.

Scott Conger

Justin, the theory of Trickle Down Economics is where a business sees it's taxes reduced, in the expectation that the money will be used to grow the business and employ more people. I'm not defending it, I'm just explaining it. What I described is called building a business and finding someone like, perhaps yourself, who will work for an agreed-upon wage, and you'd call that "getting a job". Some people take risks, sometimes go broke in the process or sometimes succeed like owning a humble and small restaurant or heading up a Mega-Corp. In any event, they were rich in ideas, desires and willingness to extend themselves. And trust me, not all restaurant owners are rich...in fact they often are working for free at best or at worst, paying rent for 9 months with Zero Income, as in California. There are two kinds of poor people in the world: One has had some sort of terrible adversity through no fault of their own that cannot be overcome, for which social safety-nets have been created, and the other, people who are poor in spirit, often are predisposed to expect the worst and frequently look to others to scape-goat for their shortcomings and lack of success in life. Being 50 years old, for instance, and working minimum wage is not an indictment against the employer, but of the employee who has somehow, for an entire lifetime, managed to miss every opportunity the American Experience has to offer. The only thing someone wealthier than them did to them and from the sound of it, for you too, is provide a job. Don't hate them for it.

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