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Staffing woes force Whitefish resort to scale back operations

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Daily Inter Lake | June 4, 2021 2:34 PM

Whitefish Mountain Resort will scale back its summer schedule to just five days a week due to a worker shortage that is affecting numerous Flathead Valley businesses this tourist season.

Starting June 12, the resort will be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for all operations except scenic lift rides to the summit.

“This shift is in direct response to lack of staffing this summer,” resort spokeswoman Maren McKay said. “Another reason we chose to do this is we genuinely don't want to burn our employees out and overwork the employees we have now seven days a week.

“We chose to close Tuesday and Wednesday since historically those days typically have the least number of guests,” she added.

Although the resort will begin the season with a five-day week of full operations, the goal is still to hire enough staff in order to be open every day. The resort is offering an extra $2 per hour bonus for employees that would be paid out at the end of every month they work.

Memorial Day weekend was the start of the summer season at Whitefish Mountain Resort and McKay said the holiday weekend was successful even with limited staff and the number of guests exceeding the resort's expectations.

“Opening weekend went really well; being in Montana we all know the weather in summer can be kind of fickle… I think part of our great guest turnout was because of the awesome weather we had,” McKay said Thursday.

Staffing issues are widespread across the valley for many businesses this year, and Whitefish Mountain Resort — one of the largest employers in Whitefish — is experiencing similar challenges. McKay said although the resort can’t pinpoint the exact reasoning for the workforce shortage on the mountain, managers believe there are several contributing factors.

Some of those include a lack of J1 visas for international student workers, a shortage of employee housing, the cost of living in Whitefish, which is on the rise, and an overburdened childcare system in the valley.

“I think it’s a mixture of things and I wish we had the exact answer,” McKay said, adding that a shrinking seasonal workforce may be due to people leaving the area during the pandemic and then not being able to afford to live here when they come back.

The resort typically recruits 24 foreign students on J1 visas because that is the number of employees that can be accommodated in the resort’s employee housing, resort Director of Human Resources Kristi Hanchett said. In 2018 they hired the full 24 students, then three fewer in 2019 and 2020 the resort ended up with 16, although none of them were originally hired to work at the resort.

Hanchett said this year 22 students are technically hired, but only two are actually here working as the rest await visa approvals from embassies in their home countries.

“That’s just due to foreign embassies backlogged and restrictions that are related to the pandemic,” McKay explained.

The resort usually is fully staffed by the beginning of July, McKay said, so it is still early to know exactly how far behind the resort is with staffing. She said it is probably 65% of the way to being fully staffed for the summer season. There are currently 17 seasonal job openings with multiple positions available in most listings on the resort’s website.

The resort also will have limited food options, similar to the 2020 summer season. The Base Lodge will have a slimmed-down menu with more grab-and-go options and the Summit House will have the bar open with prepackaged snacks only.