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.”