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housing hurts

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No housing means no employees for employers By Chris Woodall Whistler's tragic housing crunch is beginning to affect employers' abilities to hire staff. Jobs advertised in both Whistler weeklies are going begging. Some employers are shocked to find not one application has come in for advertised positions that used to attract at least a handful of applicants. A recent tally of jobs versus housing in the classifieds section of the Pique and the Question showed approximately 100 jobs available in everything from restaurant staff, office help, construction trades, retail clerks, and more than a score of situations with Blackcomb Mountain. At the same time there were just five long-term accommodation listings for a total of 11 bedroom spaces. Given the Whistler way to live, however, those 11 places may spin out to accommodation for 22 bedroom-sharing people. From interviews with a variety of employers, it is apparent that those who planned ahead are doing alright, but those who do not normally supply staff accommodation are frustrated in their attempts to hire staff. "We’re in reasonably good shape," says employee relations director Gord Ahrens of Whistler Mountain’s situation. Whistler put the call out during the warm months to rent houses for staff and now finds itself with a few beds left over. Providing accommodation for senior staff is another issue. Employees in those positions can be married or otherwise spousally enhanced and desire something that isn’t shared with others, Ahrens says. Blackcomb, too, planned ahead by securing leases on private residences to augment its 550 staff housing beds. It rents 14 houses — up from five last year — for 40 extra beds, says housing manager Lia Fowler. "We’re trying to get more, but we’re not having any luck," she says, although February traditionally promises some housing relief as work visas expire or people get fed up with Whistler and move on. "We haven’t had anyone even respond to it," manager Jane Fanning of Excess Clothing and Accessories says of a recent job ad. "Normally you get so many resumes." Fanning’s company has accommodation in two places — one each in Alpine and Function Junction — with four beds each. When people have showed up to apply for work, they have said they had accommodation, but Fanning says they may have been fibbing just to land the job. It happened last year. "We had one guy who worked with us for three weeks, but had to leave because he couldn’t get accommodation," Fanning remembers. Pinecraft Furniture in Function Junction is another company that got zero response from a job ad. "It’s been very discouraging," says Darlene Eaton, co-owner with husband Al. Attracting employees with special skills becomes a nightmare for companies who must search across the country for staff, but can’t bring them here because there’s nothing to rent. "It’s a major problem, almost impossible," says Bear Foot Bistro chef Eric Vernice of his attempt to hire an experienced first cook. "To hire someone with experience, we have to bring them from the big city. If we can’t find accommodation it’s very expensive to put them up in a hotel or lodge until something comes along." It’s also expensive in time lost and transportation cost to find places in Squamish or Pemberton, Vernice says. Chris Quinlan, manager of Hoz’s Pub, agrees. "In the past we’ve had staff in Pemberton, but it’s not good for service. They finish at 10 or 11 p.m. and there’s no bus to Pemberton then, so they’re stuck in Whistler." All that hassle means staff won’t be happy, which can affect their rapport with customers, Quinlan observes. Human resources management on both mountains always knew that sooner or later the word would get out around the world not to go to Whistler for work because there’ll be no place to live. That time has come, according to Shoestring Lodge manager Ben Horne. "Usually in October and November we’re absolutely full with Canadians and Aussies looking for work," Horne says. "But I’d say this year we’re down in accommodation from job seekers." Once the ski season hits, the Shoestring — like many inexpensive lodges — changes to high season rates. Being a place for a cheap room is difficult when your bottom line relies on the additional revenue. "We try to provide some reduced rates on accommodation, but we’re limited in what we can do, even for our staff," Horne says. High rents are posing a different problem for some retail outfits. Employers like Judeth Johnson at KFC find that employees are quick to jump ship for another employer paying even 50 cents more an hour simply because every extra bit helps pay the rent. "The high turnover becomes a problem," she says. The fast-food chicken restaurant has gone through more than 100 people in the short time it’s been open. Although KFC doesn’t offer staff accommodation now, Johnson says it is trying to get some. And Johnson thinks high housing rents are starving employees of food. "A lot of employees depend on their restaurant job for a free meal," Johnson says. "Sometimes it’s their only meal for the day and that’s sad, that’s really sad." KFC can draw on McDonald’s for experience. Providing staff accommodation should be part of doing business, says owner Tom Horler. "Taking care of your business means taking care of your employees." When the fast-food hamburger restaurant opened, it ran into the same accommodation tussle faced by more recent retail residents. "When I first came to Whistler, it was a problem we had originally, but we acted upon it immediately and started renting houses for our employees," Horler explains. "Eventually we bought." McDonald’s has 80 per cent of its staff in its own housing, Horler says. They pay less in rent than they would normally for something similar. "I want to encourage all of my fellow Chamber of Commerce members to provide staff accommodation. The problem will be back next year, too," says Horler, who is a director of the Chamber and sits on the Whistler Valley Housing Society board.

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