Summer tourism employers seek workers as federal wage hike looms

Topher Reimers tends bar at the Bear Pit in the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Reimers had worked for six years in the park when this photo was taken in June 2006. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate file photo)

Ruffin Prevost / Yellowstone Gate file photo

Topher Reimers tends bar in June 2006 at the Bear Pit in the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Employers report fewer applicants for concessions jobs in Yellowstone and other parks so far during 2014.

Workers looking for a summer tourism industry job in the greater Yellowstone area are likely to have better prospects this year than at any time since the 2008 recession, but job-seekers who act now will be have more options than those who wait until spring.

Industry insiders say the employment market for seasonal workers in national parks and gateway communities is increasingly favorable for employees. But it appears too soon to know how a newly announced wage hike for federal contractors is likely to affect the region’s seasonal tourism job market over the long term.

“The trend we see is that applications for summer employment are down,” said Patty Ceglio, director of operations for Cool Works. The Gardiner, Mont.-based company is an online job placement portal and social media hub that specializes in finding seasonal and year-round workers to toil at national parks, dude ranches, ski areas and other similar venues.

Ceglio said that traffic is up at CoolWorks.com, but conversions—the number of visitors actually submitting a job application—are down since last year.

For most of the last five years, it has “definitely been an employers’ market,” Ceglio said, with more applicants than positions for jobs like cooks, clerks, housekeepers and other entry-level positions in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as most parks nationwide.

“But that has turned around, and employees now have the upper hand,” she said.

Applications are also lower than expected at Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a Yellowstone National Park concessioner which operates hotels, restaurants and activities in the park.

“We think this may be an indicator that the U.S. economy is picking up steam,” said Jim McCaleb, Xanterra’s vice president of parks north. “For the past few years, we have received many applications from experienced workers who we believe are now transitioning back to year-round employment.”

Privately held Xanterra is the nation’s largest national and state park concessioner, employing approximately 3,000 just in Yellowstone.

Wage hike in 2015

Another factor for employers to consider is a wage hike for federal contract workers set to take effect Jan. 1, 2015.

An executive order signed earlier this month by President Barack Obama mandates a minimum hourly wage of $10.10 for federal contract workers, including national park concessions employees. Tipped employees must be paid a base wage of $4.90 under the order, which applies to any new contracts executed after Feb. 12 of this year.

In Yellowstone, the first employers who must pay the higher wage are those operating snow coaches, snowmobiles and pack trips.

New contracts will be issued in December for those operators, said park spokesman Al Nash.

Nash said it was unclear whether some other commercial use authorizations expiring over the next two years would be affected by the order.

Xanterra just completed a new 20-year contract with Yellowstone last fall, and thus won’t be directly affected by the order.

Privately held Delaware North Companies operates stores and food outlets in Yellowstone and other concessions in parks and venues across the country. The company employs approximately 600 in Yellowstone, and its contract there expires at the end of 2018.

In Grand Teton National Park, officials just recently issued new 10-year contracts for major concession operators, said park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs, so the wage hike won’t directly apply there for a decade.

But the federal contractor wage hike is likely to have an effect on the labor market anyway, Ceglio, because seasonal park workers are highly mobile, and can choose between many jobs across the country, some of which will likely be paying the $10.10 hourly rate.

Large employers like Xanterra and Delaware North compete nationally, and even internationally, to attract workers. And social media networks and websites like CoolWorks make it easy for employees to share information about which companies pay the highest wages and offer the best benefits, she said.

Ceglio said the higher wage “is going to trickle down, including to the gateway communities,” where employers may not be legally required to pay the higher wage, but market forces are still likely to push wages up.

Obama administration officials say that’s exactly the idea behind the wage hike, which is projected to significantly boost take-home pay for up to 25 million people by 2016, according to a report released this week by the Congressional Budget Office.

Higher costs, higher prices

Ceglio said those higher labor costs are likely to show up around Yellowstone and Grand Teton in the form of higher room rates, dinner checks and activity fees, as small business owners are forced to pass on increased expenses to consumers.

The CBO report also noted that some workers will lose their jobs or be unable to find work at the higher wage, resulting in an estimated 500,000 fewer jobs in 2016.

Meanwhile, for those seeking work in 2014, Ceglio advised applying now, rather than waiting until the spring.

Employers face an increasingly complex puzzle in finding college students, retirees and others whose schedules are flexible enough to allow work from May through October. Earlier applicants will be more valuable to employers, and will have a greater selection of better positions, she said.

McCaleb said that “employees with the flexibility to work outside the peak season are especially appealing to Xanterra.”

Many employers offer perks like subsidized housing, special meal plans or extra time off in an effort to attract workers who are focused less on wages and more on the work experience or other intangibles, Ceglio said.

She cited one example of a recent CoolWorks job-seeker who sent out 32 applications for positions in five different states and received 12 offers. The applicant considered everything from family discounts to roommate arrangements in considering the offers, and finally chose an April-October job at Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.

“There are a million different things you can factor into deciding where you will be for the summer,” the applicant advised fellow job-seekers in an online forum. “And if you are new to working seasonally, you should consider everything, because the last thing you want is to not have a good experience.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].

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