Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on recent housing-related issues in Jackson Hole. To read more articles in this series, click here.
JACKSON, Wyo. — It’s July, and a community once teetering on the edge of a precipice now grapples with the unforgiving nature of the valley. Long hours, housing insecurity and staffing shortages; they are all dominating themes of summer 2021’s tale.
“Angry August” was once a term that described the burnout felt in the service industry at summer’s end when the bouts of tourism drag on. But the term no longer applies to just a single month; many say they feel the crunch every day in Jackson this summer.
This year, service industry workers in Jackson have seen an unprecedented influx in visitation. With growing numbers of visitors and a shortage of staff, the burden of a high-stress work environment has translated into added pressures for these individuals in their day-to-day life.
At the end of the day, one question remains: will a workforce survive in an environment that does not prioritize and protect them?
For Dan Quirk, manager of The Bird, the answer is no.
“It will, unfortunately, crumble quick,” said Quirk.
Since the onset of spring, The Bird has endured the busiest of seasons on record.
“We were basically doing our summer numbers from May 1 on. At that point we were severely understaffed, luckily we have a very solid core staff and we were able to get through it, but it was a grind. May felt like July for us because we were doing summer numbers.”
The crowds, the traffic — it’s not just hearsay. Recent cellphone data indicates that there have been 50,000-plus visitors to Jackson every day so far in July. On July 7, nearly 60,000 individuals paid a visit to Jackson, a history-making metric, but one that generates concern among the local community.
In seasons past, Quirk said he was able to generate schedules that ran through the season. But with staffing shortages, there are too many inconsistencies to plan for just the two or three days ahead.
“Normally I’ll have the front of house fully staffed by early April, but I’ve been training someone every week this summer,” Quirk said. “I used to set a schedule that would run through September, but this year it is almost a day-to-day thing.”
Several weeks ago, The Bird shut down its infamous Sunday brunch. It was a subtle signal to the community that their staff could not be overworked if they wanted to continue to operate for the season.
“It was a combination for us of a staffing issue but also a staffing burnout issue,” Quirk said. “We made that decision for our employees’ sake and well-being. Sundays have been nuts for us all summer, more so than normal and it made sense for us to pull that shift.”
For restaurant managers like Quirk, it is an all too common theme to live in constant fear of staff burnout, along with the inability for their workers to meet rent, eventually forcing them out of town. It’s a harsh and never-ending cycle that breaths desperation. He notes how they’ve managed to navigate this concern:
“Ultimately it’s finding that balance between our obligation to our staff. They have x amount of shifts and more so than ever they are relying on all that money to live here because it’s increasingly unaffordable. It’s a balance of making sure that those guys are getting the hours that they deserve, want and need but also making sure that we are preserving their wellbeing.”
When ‘home’ is not a guarantee
If working long hours serving thousands of visitors a day weren’t stressful enough, many service workers have the added stress of worrying whether they will have a home to return to.
In Teton County, housing security is a huge determinate of health according to the 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment.
The survey, released earlier this month by St. John’s Health, identified housing as the number one priority as a social determinate of health.
Statistics as such corroborate the legitimacy of the housing crisis and the strain it has caused on the mental wellbeing of a community far overworked with a lack of resources to meet growing demands.
Summer 2021’s trademark statement just might as well be “nowhere to live.”
Long-time community members who have actively invested in the community are being pushed out, bought out, and directed to the classifieds section of The Jackson Hole News & Guide only to stumble upon a property they can’t afford.
Right now, only nine homes are listed for rent in the classifieds. The Affordable Housing Department encourages individuals to spend only 30% of their income on rent.
To stay in that margin of only 30% of income spent on rent, the hypothetical residents of the 4-bedroom property displayed here would each have to make $100,000 a year to meet a monthly rent of $2,500.
Clare Stumpf, the sole staff member at Shelter JH who has generated community support surrounding this issue, is no stranger to this reality.
While there have been several proposed solutions for the housing crisis, ShelterJH has set its focus on a real estate transfer tax that could put money toward affordable housing.
“We need to build a statewide coalition of electeds, realtors, business owners, and the public to support it,” said Stumpf.
A real estate transfer tax, sometimes called a deed transfer tax, is a one-time tax or fee imposed by a state or local jurisdiction upon the transfer of real property. Usually, the cost is based on the price of the property transferred to the new owner.
This tax would be a progressive tax, meaning it could be placed on homes and not affect those who are on the lower end of the income spectrum trying to enter the real estate market. This is unlike a sales tax which adversely affects low-income individuals.
To Stumpf, an allocation of this tax toward affordable housing would offer a legitimate solution to the existing housing crisis facing the community.
Yet in the summer of unknowns, there is some solace for those struggling to make it through; the support of a community that has their back.
Back at the Bird, Quirk noted that although Jackson’s nature pushes many out, those who remain are embraced and accepted by a community that sees the value in their work.
“Obviously a majority of the reasoning behind why a lot of us have stayed here is for this community,” Quirk said. “That is what kept me here. I thought I’d just be here for a few years and go someplace else but you stay here for the community.”
“It’s unfortunate to watch this and how quickly it can fall apart.”