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Worker shortage forces Whitefish Mountain Resort to cut back summer operations

Whitefish Pilot | June 4, 2021 12:00 PM

Memorial Day weekend was the start of the summer season at Whitefish Mountain Resort and the resort says it was an overwhelming success, but WMR is also currently facing a worker shortage which will likely limit operations throughout the summer.

According to WMR Public Relations Manager Maren McKay, the opening 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,” she told the Pilot on Thursday.

The resort is anticipating another busy season, but announced recently that they will only operate a five-day week to start this summer instead of the usual seven days per week that begins mid-June. WMR 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,” McKay explained. “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.

Staffing issues are widespread across the valley for many businesses this year, and WMR being one of the largest employers in Whitefish is experiencing similar challenges. McKay says that although the resort can’t pinpoint the exact reasoning for the workforce shortage on the mountain, they 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 also the childcare system in the valley being overburdened.

“I think it’s a mixture of things and I wish we had the exact answer,” she said. “This year we have less J1 visas that are available… Additionally a shrinking seasonal workforce I think we see 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 for 24 foreign students on J1 visas because that is the number of employees that can be accommodated in the resort’s employee housing, WMR Director of Human Resources Kristi Hanchett notes. In 2018 they hired the full 24 students, then three less in 2019 and 2020 the resort ended up with 16, although none of them were originally hired to work at the resort.

Hanchett says 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 (less foreign students) just due to foreign embassies backlogged and restrictions that are related to the pandemic,” McKay explained.

WMR is usually fully staffed by the beginning of July, McKay says, so it is still early to know exactly how far behind the resort is with staffing. She said they are probably 65% of their 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.

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 even offering an extra $2 per hour bonus for employees that would be paid out at the end of every month they worked.

“We’re just trying to encourage people to come work on the mountain,” McKay said. “It’s a fun place to work with awesome perks; it's just fun feeding off all of the guests’ energy and seeing happy people come up here.”

The resort will also 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.

As of now WMR will be open Thursday through Monday beginning on June 12. Tuesday and Wednesdays the resort will still run Chair 1 for scenic lift rides to the summit and tickets on those days will be sold from the Lift Plaza Ticket Center.

The resort is open for the summer season through Sept. 6.

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