Asher Arell (left) and Zoe Hanna fill orders and wait on customers at the T-Bar Tea House on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado, on Aug. 14, 2021. Asher and Zoe will return to school in Crested Butte on Aug. 23. Like most high school and college students in Gunnison and Crested Butte, Zoe works during the summer to fill in for short staffed businesses. "Kids used to say, what are you doing this summer," she said. "Now they ask where are you working this summer?" (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A sign outside Butte Bagels advises customers that this popular breakfast stop, in the alley behind the Crested Butte post office, is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. A gaggle of tourists gathers close to peer at the sign, at the “help wanted” sign next to it, and through the darkened windows before they give up and wander off on their quest for food.

Finding a meal, a drink, or an open shop to buy souvenirs or necessities in Crested Butte and other busy mountain towns is about to get even more difficult as the worker shortage in service-related businesses runs up against the opening bell at schools. 

From Telluride to Breckenridge, the kids who have kept the wheels of commerce turning in this busier-than-usual season are quitting in droves. That means the “closed” and “help wanted” signs that have signaled distress at businesses all summer spell out even more urgency now. There aren’t enough adult workers in these resort towns to take the jobs; they can’t afford the sky-high housing costs. So, skeleton crews will be left behind to soldier on in a year when some businesses have operated with students making up more than 80% of their employees.

An increasingly extended tourist season is adding to that back-to-school employee pinch.

In the past, when high school and college-age workers returned to classrooms and sports practices, that exodus jibed with the end of tourist season. Having fewer workers was no big deal. Now, tourists keep coming into early October. Business owners who were already cutting hours of operation, closing on certain days, leaving phones unanswered, shutting off restaurant table service, and working whirlwind weeks of 60-plus hours themselves, are looking at all options to keep their businesses running in the six-week gap between the start of school and the end of the season. 

“It is what it is,” a resigned Joe Wolff said. He is the owner of the T-Bar cafe that occupies a historic building on a busy corner of Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. He is planning longer work hours for himself, and longer lines out the door as his student workers put down their aprons and head back to the books.

The work schedule calendar at the T-Bar Tea House on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado shows the difference in the number of workers able to staff the business before school starts (August, above) and after school starts (September, below) . (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Official statistics lag behind business owners’ woes. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nearly half of 16 to 24 year olds were employed last summer, and half of them worked in retail, leisure or hospitality businesses. The bureau has not released age-based statistics for 2021. 

But mountain-town business owners say it is no exaggeration to credit teens for keeping their towns running this summer. The young workers have been serving meals, operating cash registers, stocking shelves, prepping food, washing dishes, cleaning rental rooms, and selling all manner of goods and services.

“Absolutely, that is true,” said Elena Levin, the owner of Ghost Town grocery and coffee shop in Telluride. 

Levin has seven students working for her who will return to school this week. To make up for their absence, she will stop food service at 2 p.m. rather than 5 p.m. She will close at 3 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. She will change her menu to cut as much prep work as possible. She may end up closing some days.

This comes after a summer season where she was already having to work 80-hour weeks while she trained high schoolers with “little to zero experience.” She had to teach them how to hold knives, how to use food processors and how to adhere to food safety and health codes.

“I’ve used the metaphor that it’s like trying to teach someone to drive by throwing them behind the wheel in a moving sports car,” she said. “It’s unrealistic, unsustainable and unsafe, and managers and owners are feeling the strain of it the most because we are having to pick up the slack.”

Mistakes happened with inexperience. Some customers were abusive. “The mean ones were so much meaner than they used to be,” Levin said.  

Now, just when the young workers are mastering food processors and espresso machines, and when Levin could cut her own hours back to 50 or 60 a week,  the teens are leaving.

Down Colorado Avenue from Ghost Town, Wendy Basham, co-owner of the nearly 50-year-old Telluride Trappings & Toggery shop, is trying to face the next two months with her usual upbeat attitude. She is finding it difficult.

“My mantra has always been, ‘things will all work out.’ This time, things are not working out,” Basham said.

Basham and her Toggery partner, Todd Tice, have six school-age employees who got them through what she said has been their busiest summer ever. When the students go back to school Aug. 18, Basham and Tice and two other adult employees will be left to keep the store going seven days a week for the usual 11 hours a day.

Knowing what she was facing, Basham placed an ad in a local newspaper at the end of July offering a $1,500 cash bonus for anyone who would come to work for her and stay through October.

The number of replies she received: zero.

Nancy Riemer, owner of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Crested Butte, Colorado sweeps up outside her shop on Saturday. Riemer and her daughter Ashlee were working in the store because, like other businesses in Crested Butte they are short staffed because of a housing shortage and also because their dependable high school and college labor pool is drying up as schools start. Nearly every store along Elk Avenue, Crested Butte’s main street, has a help wanted sign in the window. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Nancy Riemer, the owner of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Crested Butte, also tried a cash incentive. She offered $50 to any of her employees who could lure in new workers to take over in the back-to-school gap. Chocolate Factory employee Serena Butler said she put up signs around Gunnison hoping to recruit Western Colorado University students to make the 28-mile commute for part-time shifts. Responses to her signs: also zero. 

 It has also been the same for her co-worker Ellie Duryea. 

“Everyone here is leaving next week to return to high school or college. The owner is going to have to run this herself,” Duryea said as she hustled behind the counter scooping ice cream for a noisy gang of middle schoolers. Across the room, Butler rushed around bagging up chocolates for tourists and snatching trays of giant cookies from an oven.

 At Downstairs at Eric’s in Breckenridge, owner Eric Mamula said next week he is losing five teenage workers, including a son and two nephews. Mamula, who is also the mayor of Breckenridge, called it “a huge bummer.” 

A few weeks ago, he thought the students leaving meant he was going to be working 15-hour days, seven days a week at the pub, even with his willingness to hire “anyone who walked in off the street.”  But “pure dumb luck” brought a couple of competent new adult workers through his door. 

He said he feels better about his employee situation now, but he knows other places in Breckenridge have had to close several days a week because they are short of help.

In spite of the army of teenage workers, about half of Crested Butte restaurants have been closed part-time most of the summer because of worker shortages. Some, like the Brick Oven Pizzeria & Pub, have shifted the way they operate. A “no table service” sign was tacked up out front on a recent day when most of the patio tables were filled with patrons who had the option of using a QR code on their phones to order pizza.

Durango has suffered the same shortages this summer. A survey done by the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance and the Durango Chamber of Commerce found that about a third of businesses in La Plata County struggled to fill open positions — a percentage borne out in the “now hiring” signs and banners strung through a town still bustling with tourists.

But school starting is actually a silver lining for Durango. When Fort Lewis College is back in session, college students normally fill many jobs on a part-time basis. 

“We’re fortunate we have Fort Lewis College here because when the students return, we’re going to see a lot of those students enter the workforce (and) fill in a lot of the service industry jobs,” said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango chamber.

Llewelyn said he has been working with Fort Lewis to establish what the college is calling a Handshake Program. The program is a new recruiting platform where employers can post part-time, full-time, internship, research and volunteer opportunities. Students will be able to find opportunities there to match their skills or their study interests.

Mountain towns without a local university can only dream of that kind of opportunity as their young workers leave for colleges elsewhere and their high school workers fill after-school hours with sports and other extracurricular activities.

Basham said she hopes those students return to their studies with some level of education from their summer jobs  ̶  and with a realization of how important they were to towns struggling under the weight of too many tourists and too few workers.

“I am calling this ‘teen week’ because it’s the last week we have the teenagers,” she said. “I am so inspired by them. What an opportunity it was for these young people to get us through this summer.”

Eric Rankin, co-owner of Butte Bagels, cooks on the line on Saturday morning because he can’t hire enough employees to fill the shifts. The shortage has caused some restaurants to close and others to limit the days and hours they are open. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)