Work force shifting in Steamboat

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Three years ago, a Mexican man paused at the door of a restaurant in Steamboat Springs. He didn't speak English, and he was terrified.

He walked through the door, into the kitchen and asked for a job.

They handed him a towel and pointed to the sink. He has worked as a dishwasher ever since.

The man, who asked not to be identified, works as many shifts as his employer will give him. He is thankful for the work, he said.

Before he arrived in Steamboat, he had been unemployed in Mexico for more than a year. With no job prospects on the horizon, he had a child to support, and his savings were running low.

It was hard to leave, he said. "I love Mexico. I love my family, but there is no work."

He plans to go back to Mexico when he gets enough money saved to start a business back home. Until then, every two weeks when a paycheck comes, he joins the line of fellow immigrants at Safeway to wire money to his family.

A changing work force

Years before the immigrant population found Steamboat, dishwashing was considered the ultimate ski bum job: Ski during the day, stand over a sink at night.

There isn't much responsibility. No one cares what you wear or if you need a haircut. Just put your head down and wash. The restaurant even feeds you during your shift.

Mike Diemer, who has owned Johnny B Good's Diner with his wife, Kathy, for 11 years, always relied on ski bums to wash his dishes and do the prep work in the kitchen.

But throughout the years, ski bums stopped applying. Through the late 1990s into this decade, Diemer struggled to fill those positions.

"The dot-com economy changed things," he said. "Now, people overvalue themselves, and they undervalue their jobs."

Mexicans started asking Diemer for work in 2001. Since then, it's been a lot easier to keep his restaurant running.

"The Mexicans I've hired, they work hard. They don't gripe. They respect the job," Diemer said. "I couldn't be happier. I'd go to bat for them any day."

Labor shortage

The Diemers are one of a growing number of Steamboat Springs employers turning to immigrant labor to fill the jobs that no one else will take.

They know first-hand that Routt County has a labor shortage, and they have found it nearly impossible to hire native workers for low-paying, seasonal jobs.

According to the Yampa Valley Partners Community Indicators Project 2005-06 report, Routt County's 2003 unemployment rate was 3.5 percent. By comparison, experts consider a 5 percent unemployment rate an indicator that every employable person in an area has a job.

For Routt County's employment rate to be so much lower than 5 percent indicates that some Routt County residents are working two jobs, or some Moffat County residents are working in Routt, local economist Scott Ford said.

The labor shortage has been created in part by an increase in second-home ownership in Routt County. Coupled with a tourism-based economy, second-home ownership spurs an increase in construction jobs and service-oriented jobs such as housekeeping, landscaping and maintenance while simultaneously helping to drive up housing prices.

So, even as low-skill, low-pay jobs increase, the number of people who usually fill those jobs -- people between the ages of 20 and 35 -- are leaving Steamboat because of the rising cost of living.

With the median home price in Steamboat more than $300,000, the average worker has little hope of building a permanent life in Steamboat. In contrast, most immigrants plan to work in the area for one to four years before returning home with a nest egg to start a better life. For them, buying a local home isn't an issue.

The number of immigrant workers who have arrived in Northwest Colorado to fill the need for labor has yet to be measured, and the effects of the changing demographic have yet to be studied.

Measuring the wave

Because many in the new wave of immigration are undocumented, they are difficult to count and wary of being counted.

One indicator of the growing number of immigrants in Routt County is the Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus English as a Second Language program, where a majority of students are Spanish speakers. From 2000 to 2002, student enrollment increased 600 percent, and from 2002 to now, ESL enrollment rose an additional 400 percent.

Although Ford hasn't studied directly the effects of the changing demographic on Steamboat Springs, he acknowledges a local dependence on immigrant labor. That dependence is inevitable from an economic perspective -- the result of two unequal economies in close proximity -- but may not be a bad thing, Ford said. "To a certain degree, the desire to pursue opportunity in the United States is part of that entrepreneurial spirit we admire so much. This is the land of opportunity, and you can't fault them for trying to better their lot."

Supply and demand

David Scully, owner of Chase Oriental Rug Company, hired Sabino Corral six years ago. He was struggling to find workers who would do the manual labor of carrying, moving and flipping rugs for customers. The people he hired complained that the job was too tedious and too physically demanding. They rarely stayed long. Unlike Diemer, whose labor shortage problems were solved when Mexican workers came knocking on his door, Scully went searching for an immigrant.

"It took me a long time to find Sabino," Scully said.

He called CMC's English as a Second Language program almost weekly, asking if there was someone who needed work. Finally, a Mexican man took his offer. That man, who was Corral's cousin, had been working as a dishwasher at the now closed Steamboat Brewery and Tavern and needed a job during the off-season.

The man worked for Scully until the brewery reopened, and the rug company brought Corral in as his replacement.

"He's been with me ever since," Scully said. "People may think we hire immigrants because they're cheap labor. It's not necessarily cheap. I pay him well. But he's providing a labor resource that I wouldn't otherwise have. There just aren't enough workers out there. Their supply is meeting our demand.

"The sooner people stop viewing this labor source as 'those people' and start thinking, 'Thank God they're here,' the easier it will be for our two communities to integrate."

To reach Autumn Phillips, call 871-4210 or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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