As temperatures rise and schools around the country begin their summer vacations, Moab’s heavy tourism season is fully underway, resulting in a labor shortage at some businesses.
Arches National Park saw more than 1.6 million visitors last year, according to the National Park Service, and Canyonlands saw 742,000. After the hordes of tourists head to the parks to hike and take pictures, they head into town to grab food and lodging. Just as the parks struggle to provide infrastructure to the deluge of visitors, the local restaurants struggle to adequately staff their locations in order to serve the sometimes-overwhelming amount of patrons.
Resident Mardee Burnham has worked a number of food service jobs at locations including Red Rock Bakery, Love Muffin Cafe, Sabaku Sushi, and Pasta Jays. She is familiar with the industry’s struggle to stay properly staffed.
“The beginning of the season is when it happens the most,” she explained. “By the time the end of the season hits, we’re able to find enough people, but when the season begins we have a hard time finding those people.” This can lead to a stressful work environment. “People lose their days off because we’re short staffed, and you have to come in and work more,” she said. The main issue, according to Burnham, is the transient nature of the labor pool. “It’s a seasonal town,” she remarked. “The climbers come for the season and then they’re gone. Nobody wants to stay once it gets too hot, and nobody wants to stay when it’s really cold.”
In order to entice employees to work throughout the season, many businesses in town offer end-of-season bonuses. “Most of the time, if you stay for either the season or the whole year, you get a bonus at the end,” Burnham reported. “It’s been the case at all the places I’ve worked so far.”
In this case, the labor shortage is making this town a worker’s market. The Spoke on Center Restaurant began offering health insurance to its full-time employees this season, a fairly uncommon occurrence in the food service industry. “Health care has gotten really expensive, so we went to the table and asked what we could do,” commented Spoke General Manager Joseph Lema. “It’s a substantial value to any employee. It’s like making an additional $3,000 to $4,000, is how I think about it.”
Lema claims the decision was not made in order to entice employees to work with or remain at the Spoke, however. “I don’t think it’s a determining factor for people coming to work here,” he said. Though this may be the case, it is hard to argue that the promise of health coverage, something not even offered to part-time city employees, is not an enticing benefit.
“I really appreciate them offering us health coverage,” said Spoke employee Britt Zale. “It feels like they’re looking out for me.”
Though the national parks in the area draw an increasing amount of visitors every year, the federal establishments do not seem to suffer a similar labor shortage as the local businesses. “It’s not like we’re drawing from the Moab labor pool,” said Ike King, a seasonal park guide at Arches National Park who hails from Virginia. He believes this sentiment to be the reason the parks do not seem to be understaffed. He continued, “It’s a national labor pool. Very few people who work in the national parks are from this region originally.”
As more and more businesses and hotels are constructed and open in order to keep up with the growing tourism industry, the labor need in Moab will continue to grow. The issue is reflected in country-wide statistics: Moab’s unemployment rate of 4.3 percent is just slightly higher than the national average of 4.1 percent.