Help wanted: Cost of living limits customer service workers and businesses
Special to the Sierra Sun
As COVID restrictions continue to rollback nationwide, tourism has started up again and is in full swing around Lake Tahoe.
In contrast, businesses all around the lake have put up help wanted signs and placed ads in hopes of keeping up with post COVID customer demand.
Job opportunities range from customer service and food industry positions at various restaurants and resorts, including the Hyatt Regency in North Lake Tahoe and Zephyr Cove Resort. In Incline Village, the Village Ace Hardware store recently reduced their hours from seven days a week to six, having to close on Sunday due to lack of staff availability.
A survey from the Harvard Business School Online in early this year showed that 71% of people are uncomfortable going back to work in their offices until everyone is fully vaccinated. The survey also reported that 59% of people who worked from home began to make their health a priority.
According to some local employees, these issues contribute to their decision to go back to work, along with a few others, namely the rising cost of living in Tahoe, and the growing expectation for one-of-a-kind customer service to set businesses apart from each other.
Former Lone Eagle Grille employee Camille Wehr explained that after working for the restaurant for almost two years, she needed a fresh start somewhere else.
“I was a food runner, and then I worked my way up to a hostess,” Wehr said. “I was kind of an interim lead hostess when they didn’t have one. So I had all of the responsibilities of doing that without the actual title.”
Although Wehr left on good terms with the company, she said some of the biggest issues was how much she was being compensated for her work compared to what her job actually required.
“It was a lack of pay for the expectation of what they wanted me to do on a daily basis … Just the way the customers would treat us and the way we were spoken to … and it was just an immense amount of customer service on a lot of different end,” Wehr said.
Wehr explained that she felt she went above her normal responsibilities by creating floor plans curated to please everyone on staff, going out of her way to do special requests, and helping out in whatever position she could. But the amount of work she did wasn’t represented in her overall pay.
Minimum wage in Nevada is $9.75 per hour, but the Lone Eagle, along with many other restaurants, offer well above that wage. Currently, a part-time food runner position starts at $15 an hour. But Wehr said that it wasn’t enough for her to comfortably live on the North Shore.
“I was living paycheck to paycheck,” Wehr said.
After moving to Reno in late 2021, Wehr says she doesn’t plan on moving back to the North Shore, nor does she plan on working in the customer service industry any longer.
“I honestly don’t think this industry is for me after dealing with the types of people … customer service wise,” Wehr said. “It takes a very strong-willed person to deal with that.”
Wehr is among the many residents of Tahoe who eventually moved away due to the cost of living that has skyrocketed over the last four years. According to the Beacon Economics 2017 Eastern Placer County/Tahoe Region Workforce Housing Needs Assessment, 80% of those who work in the Tahoe Region actually live outside of the region and often commute across state and county borders.
Placer County District 5 Supervisor Cindy Gustafson has been actively fighting against this problem since 2002.
“The first time I wrote about this, it was in a time capsule,” Gustafson said. “I recently found my remarks where I said, ‘I don’t think those who’ve come behind me are going to be able to buy a home and build a career here, like I was able to do.’”
Gustafson, along with around 30 partners of other public agencies in the basin, came together five years ago to further combat the housing crisis that is inadvertently affecting the workforce of the basin.
“Placer County participated along with many of the local jurisdictions and partners to fund the initial work that indicated the dramatic dilemma we had of the incomes of our employees and the disparate cost of housing in the Tahoe Truckee region,” Gustafson said.
Recently, the Tourism Business Improvement District was formed, giving the county the funds necessary to put affordable housing plans in action for low-income employees and those looking to buy a home.
A few of the projects in the works include Meadow View Place in Martis Valley, which has 56 affordable housing apartment complex units. There is also Hopkins Village, which is currently underway, and is being made specifically for those earning 180% of the area median income. This development is also being built in Martis Valley.
The Hopkins Village homes will be available only to locals who are based and working in the Tahoe and Truckee area.
“So in other words, you can’t buy it and be remote to your job in the Bay Area,” Gustafson said. “One of the people in the house has to work in the local community.”
Another housing development includes the Dollar Creek Crossing project, which is hoped to have 140 units and be affordable for the community. That project still requires an environmental review, which hopefully will be done by next summer, according to Gustafson.
Finally, Gustafson said that the district is creating a secondary housing market in the basin through the Workforce Housing Preservation Program.
“What it does is it allows a local workforce to buy a home that’s currently out there already,” Gustafson said. “You don’t have to construct anything, and we would pay a portion of that for a deed restriction that would require them to sell to somebody else who was going to work in the community.”
The flexible program allows homeowners to sell at whatever price point they want, so long as the deed is transferred over to someone who is working in the community.
“We’re [the county] really trying to be innovative to learn from partners and other parts of the country that have already faced this,” Gustafson said.
Another group focused on this issue is the Tahoe Prosperity Center. The regional community and economic development non-profit brings together local businesses, along with a number of organizations that are invested in creating a better economy and community for the residents of the basin to create solutions.
The nonprofit Program Director Chase Janvrin said that there are a few programs underway on the South Shore. The need for them is reflected in the 2019 South Shore Region Local Housing Needs and Opportunities Assessment. Janvrin explained that while affordable housing is absolutely needed in the basin, there is a larger issue at hand.
“Affordable housing is, I think, the primary objective,” Janvrin said. “It’s certainly the most noticeable from an employer’s standpoint, but we really need housing across the spectrum. We also need moderate income housing. We need it for rentals and ownership homes.
“Furthermore, there’s traditionally been a cycle of housing that has stopped, which is downgrading. As folks become empty nesters, as they retire, typically what would happen is they downsize. They would go to a home to a smaller condo for example, or a smaller home, and they’re not doing that because there’s a lack of options.”
The local housing assessment eventually accumulated to the South Shore Region Local Resident Housing Action Plan, which consists of multiple organizations that work to recognize the unique communities of Tahoe and their housing needs.
“There’s a housing authority in El Dorado County and Douglas County, but neither of them really operate at the lake,” Janvrin said. “So those traditional activities the housing authorities would do aren’t being done up here in the basin. Furthermore, deed restrictions have always been one of the most common tools to have permanently affordable workforce housing in communities, but there’s a lot of maintenance with that. Somebody has to monitor and enforce those deed restrictions. And right now, we don’t have an entity to do that.”
The Prosperity Center has recently formed the Washoe Tahoe Housing Partnership, which will be assessing the Incline Village and Crystal Bay areas of Lake Tahoe in order to create the last needs assessment of the basin. Not only will this provide a full picture of what the basin’s housing needs look like, but will hopefully provide some insight on how to keep local workers local.
The Tahoe Prosperity Center’s CEO Heidi Hill Drum said another long term project for the organization is balancing the tourism economy of the basin through diversifying the economy. One way to do that is through their site tahoeclearconnect.org, as well as their Envision Tahoe Prosperity Plan.
“It’s all about helping workers find their right career,” Drum said. Along with helping workers on skills, it will help people find long term jobs that also pay better.
For more information of programs that Prosperity Center is working on for the workforce and home force on the lake, visit their website at tahoeprosperity.org.
Miranda Jacobson is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun
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Truckee is offering a one-month extension for downtown businesses, allowing restaurants to continue to use outdoor patio spaces as a means to operate through the end of October, according to Assistant Town Manager Hilary Hobbs.