News & Features

Finding Help in the Flathead

As tourists flood the valley, many local businesses find themselves understaffed, overworked and facing a dearth of seasonal workers

A bright red “Join Our Team” banner covers an entire side of the McDonald’s on U.S. Highway 93 in Kalispell. You can see it from across the highway, unless there are enough cars in the drive-thru to block out the letters. Oftentimes, there are.

This scene illustrates one of the Flathead’s main problems during the peak of summer: The huge influx of tourists into the valley means that local businesses have to hire seasonal staff in order to keep up with the vast demand. Yet, despite the number of local workers looking for jobs, many seasonal positions aren’t filled. Many businesses, especially those in the accommodation and food services industry, are consequently understaffed and overworked.

Data from the Flathead Job Service’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages reveals how many seasonal workers are needed to keep restaurants, lodges and hotels operating during summer. In May 2016, Flathead County had 5,462 employees working in the accommodation and food services industry. In June, there were 6,303. July saw 6,622, August 6,874, and September 6,153. In October, the number of employees dropped back down to 5,492. To cover the summer rush between May and August, Flathead County businesses hired 1,412 seasonal employees.

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There is no denying the amount of jobs that need to be filled each summer, and one might think locals would be snapping up those positions. But they aren’t.

Why?

Matthew Tousignant, the general manager of Belton Chalet, a historic hotel in West Glacier, offers one possible answer.

“People just don’t want to commute 50 minutes to work when they’re working minimum-wage jobs,” he says. “It’s not worth it to them.”

Xanterra Parks and Resorts’ Glacier National Park Lodges General Manager Marc Ducharme notes, “General interest for minimum-wage positions has dissipated, if not entirely disappeared, among American college-age students.”

One potential reason for this phenomenon is that there is “a millennial need for instant gratification,” says Trevor Gonser, an employment services supervisor at the Flathead Job Service.

“Millennials start the job and then realize that they can’t immediately do everything, that at first it’s more menial work,” Gonser says. “And then, maybe a day or a month later, they feel the need to leave.”

But it’s not just millennials who are leaving. Amanda Lee, who manages Kalispell’s A&W with her two sisters, says that five employees walked out, seemingly for no reason, in the past week alone. That left the restaurant with 10 employees, including cooks, when it should have 20.

“We need absolutely everything right now,” she says.

Tiffany Newman, who recently opened Indah Sushi’s brick-and-mortar restaurant with her business partner Stacey Ingham, feels that it’s difficult to keep employees tied down during summer precisely because it’s summer.

“Here in the Flathead, we’re living somebody’s vacation,” Newman says. “It’s difficult to be indoors when there’s a playground outside.”

But even the Glacier division of Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs lodging and restaurant facilities within the park itself, has difficulties filling its 730 summer positions — and particular difficulty filling them with locals. International college students who come to the U.S. for a work-and-study cultural exchange program on a J-1 visa and employees from the baby boomer generation, many of whom live out of state and travel to Glacier in their RVs, make up a significant portion of Xanterra’s summer workforce.

“It boggles my mind that people from the area don’t want to work here [in Glacier],” Ducharme says.

It’s particularly confusing, Ducharme adds, because “we have a really great situation for young people or people undergoing a transition. You don’t need anything to work here. You just show up, and we give you a uniform, a bed and three meals a day.”

This should be an especially attractive incentive in a region where housing prices are notoriously steep. As Gonser says, there is a significant shortage of affordable workforce housing throughout the valley, which means many locals have to commute prohibitively long distances to work.

Tousignant says of his difficulty in hiring local staffers for Belton Chalet’s 60 seasonal positions, 20 of which are filled by international students: “If I had more employee housing, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

But there is another reason local workers are so hard to come by, and it can be found in the evolving nature of the peak season itself.

A help wanted sign on a storefront in Columbia Falls. Beacon File Photo

“Tourism is pushing into the shoulder seasons,” Ducharme says. The growing number of tourists flooding the Flathead Valley — a record 2,946,681 people visited Glacier National Park in 2016, and another record is predicted for 2017 — is continually lengthening the peak season, which means local college students’ schedules are increasingly incompatible with those of the industries that cater to tourists.

Kristi Hanchett, director of human resources at Whitefish Mountain Resort, says her department hires both local college students and has 20 total international students so that their different schedules overlap to cover the extended tourist season. This is also a tactic used by Belton Chalet.

While Whitefish Mountain Resort has some challenges filling its 125 summer positions, Hanchett said it has the advantage of returning seasonal workers. Some have been there for over 35 years. She attributes that to the resort’s unique benefits. First, employees and their families can do any outdoors activity the resort offers for free, allowing for the ideal work-play balance. Secondly, because the resort is operable in both summer and winter, it’s not as transient of an employer as other places.

After all, as Ducharme says, “Ultimately, the biggest challenge with seasonal work is that it’s seasonal.”

Tousignant, of the Belton, points out that “summer work is hard, hot and difficult, and it ends in four months.”

“It’s not like other jobs, which are more consistent and where you’re in it for the long run,” he adds. “It’s tough on everyone, emotionally and logistically.”

Yet the accommodation and food services industry can’t do anything but expand in the face of an ever-increasing tourist population and an ever-lengthening tourist season.

“You just keep building,” says Riley Polumbus, public relations manager at Whitefish Mountain Resort, which has expanded its offerings with additional ski lifts and several children’s parks.

Xanterra’s Glacier division is currently constructing 20 cabins in St. Mary, five in Coram, and 20 RV slips in East Glacier.

“We need more workers,” Ducharme says, “and because our staff levels are pegged to the amount of beds we have, we’re building more.”

Yet, as representatives from Glacier Restaurant Group, which operates Mackenzie River Pizza, Ciao Mambo and Craggy Range Bar & Grill, among others, said in a written statement, “The number of restaurants, bars, and other tourist outlets has eclipsed the supply of workers in the Flathead Valley.”

If there’s already a dearth of workers, what happens when those restaurants, bars and tourist outlets continue to expand?

One thing is for certain: the tourists will keep coming.

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