FEATURE: #JHDreaming

By on September 6, 2016


JACKSON HOLE, WY – It’s 2:30 a.m. as Jacob Brown winds his way down Teton Pass. His knuckles whiten around his second energy drink, fighting off the reins of exhaustion after 48 hours of work. He can’t remember the drive up the pass, can’t remember the flashing, winding curves of the road, can’t remember what speed he’s been going. It’s all one long blur until his attention snaps back: a deer in the road, and he’s there, fully awake again, heart pounding, breath a quick beat as he refocuses on the pavement ahead. Another narrow miss. “What’s that word that’s beyond exhaustion?” Brown joked. “Because that’s where I am all the time. That’s where the whole town is.”

Brown just worked four 10-hour shifts in two days. On Sundays and Mondays he works 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a bell captain at one of Jackson’s high-end resorts. Then he works at Smiths until 2 a.m. unloading semi-trucks and stocking shelves. Brown works anywhere from 80 to 100 hours a week, depending on the time of year, and that takes a hefty toll on his life and his family. “I [work a 48-hour shift] so that I have Thursdays off to spend with my girls,” Brown told The Planet, referring to his wife and daughter. “But the problem with that is, I’m so tired I use [Thursdays] to sleep.” Smiths offers him overtime whenever he wants it because there’s always more work to do, but Brown has to draw the line somewhere, and on occasion he has to sleep.

Brown’s story might be extreme, but it is not uncommon. Jackson has the lowest unemployment rate in the state, but as unemployment rates have gone down over the past several years, the need for community services has spiked. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services lists Teton County as only one of two counties in the state that reported a decrease in unemployment since this time last year, dropping marginally from 2.2 to 2.1 percent this summer. Meanwhile, Jackson’s homeless shelter, the Good Samaritan Mission, has been nearly full every night of the summer, turning people away on many occasions.

If the Jackson dream is to work from dawn to dusk, locals are achieving it. Holding down four or five jobs, working 90-plus hours a week plays dangerously close to the norm. But what sort of quality of life is that? If the average American works 37 hours a week, how are Jacksonites surviving their 16-hour shifts? How do these wild work hours affect a community? And just how long can these little engines that could keep it up?

The world’s most educated bartenders

According to data collected by the U.S. Census, the median income in Jackson is only 18 percent higher than the rest of Wyoming, while the median price of a home is 200 percent higher. On top of the high cost of living, Jackson affords little opportunity for careers in professional fields. But Jackson citizens are by no means ill-equipped to hold jobs in professional fields; U.S. Census data also indicates that nearly 44 percent of Jackson residents age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The rest of Wyoming in the same age group barely reaches the 25 percent mark for college-educated adults. However, more than 44 percent of men in Jackson have jobs in construction or the service industry (read: seasonal jobs) and only 3 percent have jobs in what is considered a “professional field.” Holding 9 percent of professional careers, the women of Jackson don’t fare much better.

“From dawn until dusk” sounds like an adage for an old farmer making hay while the sun shines, but for some Jackson locals, that’s life, at least eight months of the year anyway. With approximately half of the population seasonally employed, a large portion of the Jackson workforce only has eight or nine months a year to earn a living. The off-season is approaching and Jackson locals, disproportionately a part of the service industry, will be laid off en-masse.

Brown, a Vancouver Film School graduate, will maintain his job at Smiths for the off-season, but the hotel he works for completely shuts down for the month of November.

Tyler Babcock will find himself in a similar boat when his job as a kayak instructor ends for the season. Babcock has been clocking somewhere in the vicinity of 80 hours a week between his two jobs, but when the summer season concludes his hours will decrease to 12 hours per week at the airport where he is employed part-time. Babcock’s days in the summer are so full he rarely has time off during daylight hours.

But even with the lowest unemployment rate in the state, Jacksonites are still scrambling to pay rent, make car payments, afford food, and have access to healthcare. “When you have eight W-2s to turn in during tax season, it’s insane that you’re still struggling,” Babcock said.

Live to work

Brown has made many sacrifices to keep his family sheltered and fed, but none shake him quite as much as the one he faced on May 24, 2016.

After dropping his daughter off at school he got a phone call. “I knew immediately something horrible had happened as I looked at the name on my phone: Gayle Tanner, my father’s girlfriend.” Tanner’s daughter Candace was on the line, and Brown’s heart sank. “Candace is around my age, and we don’t like each other. That’s how I knew something was wrong.

Brown’s father had passed away. A very exhausted Brown called his wife to ask her to come home from work. He needed her. He needed her because he had to call his sister to break the news. He needed her because it was too much. He needed her because he was too exhausted to handle it. He needed her because he had just lost the only parent he had left.

“I never got to mourn him. I couldn’t afford it,” he said.

160907CoverFeat-2Brown took a week off from work to pack up 55 years of his father’s life into neat boxes under the Arizona sun. One of his jobs gave him three days of paid leave; on top of that he used all of his vacation days just to have a full paycheck while he buried his father. But now, with the off-season looming, when he is laid off he won’t have any vacation days to pay his wages.

When you don’t have time to do anything but work and sleep you certainly don’t have time to mourn, so Brown says he boxed up the loss of his father beside his father’s belongings. “What makes me saddest is that I brushed [my father’s] death under the rug and then walked on it as I picked people up from the airport with a smile and told them how wonderful Jackson is, and how happy our little community is.”

Brown’s work schedule is one that Marielle Robinson can relate with. She turned down health insurance at the Spur because she simply did not have any more time to offer. To have health insurance with most companies, an employee needs full-time hours, but because Robinson has four other jobs, she does not have the time or flexibility to receive the benefits.

Five jobs seem unreasonable, unnecessary even. But Robinson insists it’s not because she is a wild spender or because she parties. She works long hours to save for a new a car. The old worn out car she was driving became dangerous last winter. The basic need for transportation forced her to take on more work. “I thought to myself, ‘How do I afford this? How am I going to make these car payments? I have to work extra.’”

Robinson said that she and her boyfriend hold hands while they sleep because she rarely gets to see him during waking hours. But sometimes, to cut down on the commute between shifts Robinson has been known to sleep in her car.

It’s a miracle Robinson gets much sleep with her schedule. She works four nights at the airport, one night at Piste, and two nights at the Spur; she chases balloons for hot air ballooning on the mornings she’s not serving breakfast or working at the airport, and serves lunches at the Wort.

When your days are filled with work it leaves little time for simple errands. Babcock’s mornings usually start before the sun rises and don’t end until long after the sun has disappeared. His time is not his own, so when something as relatively simple as a car headlight goes out, it can be inconvenient as well as dangerous. Babcock was pulled over twice for a missing headlight, and both times officers let him off with a warning after they heard his exhausting work schedule.

“I just wanted to ask the officer, ‘When will I have time to fix this? When do you think I can get this done?’” Babcock said.

As a kayak instructor, Babcock’s days start at 7 a.m., and he works until about 6:30 p.m. before he has a half hour break that gives him just enough time to drive to his second job at the airport from 7 to 11 p.m. Though his night shift often runs much later.

When Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith heard of Babcock’s situation he said, “I am glad that we were empathetic, that means we sized it up properly, but I also worry about the safety of the situation. Eventually the other light goes out too and then you have a major problem.”

Commuting to serve and protect

As Smith attests, police officers can empathize just about as well as anyone when it comes to the current worker climate in Jackson. Smith elucidated issues facing the force, from job shortages to Jackson’s increasing cost of living. “We do experience shortages in staffing fairly often,” he said. “We strive to keep positions filled, but what most people don’t realize is when we do lose an employee, it can be nine months to a year before we have their replacement selected due to an extensive background, medical exam, physical exam, psychological exam, polygraph, etc.,” he said.

The vast majority of police officers that serve Jackson cannot afford to live here. Smith said the number one reason officers leave the force is due to long commutes from other communities. “[M]ost often what we hear is the fact that they are burned out on having to commute from either Star Valley or Teton Valley, Idaho,” he said. “Our folks work 12-hour shifts, so add a commute and it becomes a 14-hour day (everyday). A person can only sustain that for so long before they are exhausted. It takes a toll on even the youngest of people in this profession and unfortunately we do not have the staffing levels to support shorter shifts and still maintain adequate staffing.”

Smith added that one of his officers has been driving 75 miles one-way to work every day. “One hundred and fifty miles a day to work is tiresome on people,” he said.

Come January, the officer will leave the force to find something closer to his home.

Another reason the force has a hard time retaining officers? Jackson’s increasingly high cost of living. Smith says many officers live paycheck-to-paycheck trying to make ends meet. “Most of the officers have young families and the daycare costs are more than their spouses make working,” he said. “So they learn to live on one income for those years while their children are young enough to need daycare. The typical officer makes around $1,500 every two weeks, so their rent takes up one entire check, leaving the second check to put gas in the car, insurance, food, car payments, etc.”

The police force mirrors much of the middle class in Jackson. Smith reported that between 60 to 70 percent of his officers have second jobs. “They are working security, tow truck drivers, short haul truck drivers, retail, personal trainers, etc.,” he said. “Most of them would have no disposable income to speak of if they did not work a second job to help them out.”

No time to help

It’s not just laborers and civil servants that are suffering. Community organizations reliant on volunteers are feeling the strain too. Most of them report having limited volunteer availability from anyone that is a part of the workforce. Instead they have come to rely heavily on retirees and high school students to supplement that shortage.

Jenna Marton is the volunteer coordinator for the Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Center. JHTRC provides horseback riding lessons to people with emotional, physical, and mental disabilities as well as United States veterans. They serve about 150 riders. But this year it has been more difficult for them than in years past to find volunteers. They rely heavily on the retired community of Jackson Hole because, as Marton explained, working-class people just do not have the time to volunteer. “Most of our volunteers are retired or people with second homes here,” Marton said. “A lot of the rest of our volunteers will live in Jackson for a few years before they have to move to Idaho or away for good [because of housing].”

The Therapeutic Riding Center is not an exception when it comes to retirees carrying the weight of the volunteer community. The Teton Literacy Center reported that more than 25 percent of their volunteers are retirees, and another 25 percent are high school students. The JH Food Cupboard and Habitat for Humanity reported similar numbers.

Elizabeth Ferguson is the volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity. “As far as people just coming in offering to help, that doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “We only get volunteers that way from retired people, but not necessarily from the young work force. I guess what I’m trying to say is we don’t get a lot of people seeking stewardship just for the heck of it—they’re not volunteering just to volunteer. We do get volunteers through work, or court-mandated service, so we don’t usually end up with a shortage, but we certainly don’t get as many volunteers in the summer because people are so busy.”

The Senior Center’s volunteer pool is comprised almost entirely of retirees. Being involved in a nonprofit like the Senior Center gives volunteer coordinator Bettie Taylor the ability to be plugged into the community in a way many of her friends cannot be. But she says she still has to make sacrifices. “Now that I have that second job, I don’t volunteer as much. I used to volunteer at the Jackson Hole Cupboard, and that would be the way I stayed involved, but now I can’t as much.”

Taylor helps organize food deliveries to homebound seniors, puts on events for the elderly community, and directs community outreach events for the Senior Center. All of these activities are driven predominantly by the manpower of the few in the community with the time or the means to provide it: retirees. And nonprofit staffers throughout the county say they are grateful for their efforts. But sometimes Taylor still has to run food distribution out of her own time, or she has high school students make deliveries that don’t quite meet their age qualifications.

‘We have to do something’

Babcock said he would love to be more involved in the community. “It would be nice to go to a town council meeting where they’re discussing housing, but when you’re working 80 hours a week, how do you find the time to be a local participant? How can you have your voice heard?”

When it comes to volunteering, Babcock tries his best to fit it in wherever he can. “My friend runs the Hole Food Rescue, and I would love to volunteer my time to help them, but when do I do that? I canvassed for one of the county commissioner candidates during my one night a week off. Not to pat myself on the back, but that’s a big sacrifice to make if it’s your only night off.”

Robinson echoed the same sentiment: “There was that housing protest, and I wanted to go in March with everyone when they were protesting, but obviously I was working. I would like to get involved more with Hole Food Rescue or Habitat for Humanity, but I just don’t know when I’d do it.”

For Jackson mayor Sara Flitner, heavy work loads in the community are a worrisome trend. She has noticed the sacrifices people are required to make just to be a part of her campaign or have their voices heard in the community. “The working parents and single moms humble me the most, and have the hardest struggles,” Flitner told The Planet. “They barely have time to get food on the table and sleep. We have to keep working to speak their truth, and that is why safe, affordable rental housing is so important.”

Sometimes, no matter how much citizens want to, Flitner recognizes that some folks simply cannot find the time to participate. “I also remember all the people who are not in the room, who aren’t the squeaky wheel because they are working or raising a family, or both,” she said. “They are holding down jobs and helping kids grow up, and I try to think about what they need with every vote I take. We are lucky to live in a town small enough to see each other up close. If you don’t see how hard it is for our service workers, especially single moms, you’re blind.”

When it comes to remembering the voiceless Flitner and mayoral candidate Pete Muldoon are on the same page. Muldoon acknowledges that running for mayor wouldn’t be possible if he was not in a very specific position in life. “I own my own business, so my hours are at least flexible. I’m not married. I don’t have a mortgage or a car payment, or young children to take care of. As difficult as this is, it would be much harder for many people.”

Muldoon understands wholeheartedly that even campaigning for him is a huge sacrifice for most people. Most of his campaigners hold down two or three jobs, and are sacrificing what little free time they have just to be a part of the political process. As the housing crisis deepens, Muldoon hopes to bridge the gap for those who cannot speak out for themselves, due to time restrictions, heavy workloads, and exhaustion. “If you can’t make it to a council meeting you really won’t be heard. Developers consider council meetings to be part of their job. If they can’t make it, they’ll have a lobbyist there [to make sure their positions are acknowledged]. We saw this clearly with Shelter JH’s rally of 100-plus citizens to protest the increased lodging proposal. They won, but didn’t have time to keep coming back. The developers did [have time], however, and as soon as the protesters went back to doing the real work in town, the council reversed the decision.”

Muldoon and Flitner both work jobs outside of their campaigns that help support their candidacy. “This campaign came during the height of my busy season,” Flitner said. “It left me no time for a personal life or, really, anything other than work and [my] campaign. Because I had very little money I couldn’t hire people to do organizational work for me. And it’s a lot of work.”

Flitner is proud of just how hard the community works to make sure the voiceless are heard. She pointed to the volunteers and advocates at the Food Cupboard, Hole Food Rescue, One22, Community Safety Network, and Teton Youth and Family Services. “These people set an example for us all in working together to serve and get results. Our community really cares.”

Going into the shoulder season, Mary Erickson of One22, formerly the Community and Latino Resource Centers, says it’s about to be the most stressful time of year for many residents. Winters aren’t like the summers when living out of cars is a feasible alternative to brick and mortar housing. Winter camping in the fourth coldest city in the United States isn’t really an option. According to Erickson, this causes an influx of people with no place to go.

Erickson reported that the need for services at places like the Community and Latino Resource Centers has increased every year she has worked there, and meeting those needs has become more and more difficult.

But even with wild work schedules, Erickson thinks that rather than suppressing voices, sheer desperation is driving people toward community involvement. “I think the voice of the community is a really complex issue, and what I’m seeing is a little bit unexpected. Because people are so desperate they don’t have much to lose. They’re thinking, “We have to do something,” so they’re finding the time. We have people going to various council meetings and candidate forums in greater number even though they’re working long, long hours,” Erickson said. “At our forums we provide childcare and food and try to fit it into people’s lives the best we can. We try to make it as easy as possible for people to show up. So I think overall it’s a little bit of the opposite; people are overextended and forcing themselves to find the time to be heard.”

Homeless in the Hole

For some, holding down multiple jobs doesn’t ward off homelessness. Brad Christensen of the Good Samaritan Mission says that Jackson’s homeless population is not what you would consider typical. “The homeless in Jackson are different,” he said. “They all have jobs. But we’re still busy all of the time. We also do free community meals, because you realize even if they do have housing, the rent is so steep it’s the difference between making rent and eating sometimes.”

Homelessness has become so commonplace it is a rite of passage for many workers in the valley. The Teton County Needs Assessment reported that in 2010, 128 clients at the Community Resource Center were homeless at the time of intake. In 2014 the entire state of Wyoming reported a total homeless population of 1,024. For a town that makes up less than three percent of the entire population of Wyoming, that’s a high rate of homelessness. And it’s affecting people across the spectrum. Thirty-five percent of the homeless are over the age of 50, the report found; 27 percent had lived in the valley for more than 10 years and 10 percent had lived in the valley more than 20 years. Teton County does not have any new data to report, but the housing crisis continues to worsen.

160907CoverFeat-5According to Christensen, this trend has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2010 nightly stays at the mission clocked in at 7,210. Last year they hit 11,715. For 2016, they are well on track to reach more than 12,000. The mission is also seeing a higher demand for its free meals. Last year they provided 15,509 meals and gave away about 28,900 food boxes to locals who came in for free food. For 2016 Christensen says they are expected to provide closer to 19,000 meals. That’s a 22 percent increase in one year.

Christensen worries there is no way of knowing exactly how many people the housing crisis has left homeless in Jackson Hole. “I know a lot of people car camp in Jackson, but a lot of local authorities look the other way because they understand the situation. But as far as numbers, I don’t think there is any way to gauge it,” he said.

Help (always) wanted

Mad River Boat Trips has been allowing their employees to use their parking lot as a shelter this summer, and front office manager Tamera Erekson says it’s the only reason they still have any employees at all. “I think that we definitely would [face a worker shortage] if we hadn’t opened the parking area,” she told The Planet. It’s now low season for whitewater rafting, and Erekson reports that nearly everyone that is still working for the company actually lives on site.

According to the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, Jackson’s hotel occupancy rates increased 5 percent this summer compared to 2015 (already a record-breaking year for tourism). Busy summer hours and a hectic, unpredictable work schedule have kept Erekson from being able to find a second job; even as the front office manager of Mad River, she still struggles in Jackson’s expensive clime. To make up for the income gap, Erekson joins her fellow coworkers as a car-camper in the parking lot. Mad River provides an outdoor shower for its employees as well as a communal area in its garage and laundry facilities. “We have laundry facilities even though I know a lot of people use the laundromat, because they don’t want to have to wait in line for our machines,” she quipped.

Erekson is positive this will continue to be a problem long into the future as the housing crisis intensifies and the job market expands. “I’ve already heard from a few of them that they won’t come back unless they have an actual place to live. I think this year we got lucky with the employees we got, and that we got to keep them, but eventually employees aren’t going to be willing to live in their cars just to work here.”

A saturated job market has affected just about every aspect of the tourism industry. There are more than 140 job listings in newspaper help wanted pages, some of them containing multiple job openings. The Airport board has openings listed in the paper for more than a year for airport security staff. High-end hotels like Amangani and the Four Seasons have perpetual listings for a plethora of positions, not to mention local businesses at businesses such as Bootbarn and Teton Gravity Research. The school district needs everything from coaches and teachers to bus drivers and office assistants. The barrage of job openings is endless, but few organizations can offer citizens housing, or even the ability to work just one job.

For Brown, the Jackson dream aside, his great hope is that he can take care of his daughter, his wife, and their new baby on the way, and he is willing to make whatever sacrifices necessary to do that. With the loss of his father still weighing heavy on him, Brown says his father has done the same for him. In death, Brown’s father’s life insurance policy will be distributed this upcoming week, and Brown will be able to pay off his home. He is hopeful that this will ease the workload he has taken on. “In the end [my father’s] death gave my family and I an opportunity to take a deep breath and be together a few more days a week.” PJH

About Natosha Hoduski

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