Writers on the Range 

Labor pains: Who will do the work in the bourgeois mountain West?

One day last summer, I gave directions to two young Asian women on bicycles who were looking for the grocery store. Further chatting revealed that they weren’t tourists. In scattershot English, they told me that they were from Thailand and had come to Cody, Wyo., on temporary work visas to serve up hamburgers in Wendy’s, the fast-food franchise. As they smilingly pedaled away, I called after them: “Welcome to Cody!”

Around the same time, I spied a newspaper story about two male Romanian college students spending the summer cooking in a Cody restaurant. I also noticed that Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel employed four college-age women from Russia. Indeed, on a trip to the concession centers in Yellowstone National Park, one is likely to hear a cacophony of Nabokovian and Naipaulese accents. And the Mexicans? No matter what your views are on the incendiary immigration issue, it’s a cliché to say that they are everywhere.

I’ve been in the Cody labor force for 14 years. At my first job, as a waiter at the Irma Hotel, I saw two cooks fired on the same day. Other staff, tired of management conflicts, quit and walked out the door on a regular basis. Across the Cody service economy, people were often fired on the spot for trivial reasons. Cody was—and still is—a summer tourist town in a right-to-work state. But is it starting to change?

The numbers are in: Wyoming grew by 2 percent from 2006 to 2007, which currently makes it America’s ninth fastest-growing state. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, our population reached 522,830 this past July, up from 512,757 the year before, for a jump of 10,000. This growth reflects a curious combination: a booming energy industry that attracts out-of-state workers, and the surge of upscale newcomers flooding the state, the latter a microcosm of the greatest demographic change in the 200-year history of the American West. These mostly baby-boomer newcomers aren’t waiters, dishwashers or hotel room cleaners.

In 1994, the Cody business community could count on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap labor. Summertime Cody was full of lively and ambitious high school and college kids. The updated daily list at the state job service office showed about 20 jobs, even in summer. Today, the list stands at about 80 in midwinter, with up to 200 in summer—200 jobs that nobody wants. The service economy has expanded greatly in 14 years. In 1994, McDonald’s was Cody’s only fast-food restaurant; now there are a dozen. We have a chronically understaffed Wal-Mart Super Center. A Walgreens store will be under construction downtown this spring. But who will work there?

There are upsides to the employment crunch: It’s harder to get fired, and the increasingly desperate business community has to keep raising wages and incentives. You won’t find many local young people at Wendy’s, though. These cell-phone-toting, skateboarding high school and college kids are so prosperous—thanks to mom and dad—many don’t need or want to work at all.

Fourteen years ago, a reasonable rental housing market provided homes for the service economy folks. No more. As trophy homes rise in the surrounding countryside, Cody itself is gentrifying, and $300 apartments now rent for twice that. Houses that once rented for $500 are now $1,000, even $1,200. Utility costs (the “city bill” in Cody parlance) continue to rise. Throw in $3 gasoline and inflation at the grocery store, and the rising wages don’t come close to covering basic expenses.

It’s interesting to note that some businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, in nearby Jackson, Wyo., and Red Lodge, Mont., have begun to acquire local housing to rent to their employees. Cody’s noted dude-ranch industry has always operated on the “room and board” model, but now the idea is coming downtown, so to speak. This company-town model isn’t a solution specific to the Greater Yellowstone region, of course. Ski towns in the Rockies have long known that they need to provide as much worker housing as possible.

But here’s what I see happening: Many of the people working multiple jobs, wherever they come from, will be forced to leave town, maybe choosing such unlikely places as Worland, Greybull or Lovell. As for the business sector, it will “howl like gut-shot panthers,” as our colorful favorite son Alan Simpson might put it, while asking themselves: “Who will work?”

Bill Croke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and toils in Cody, Wyoming.
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