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Shrinking workforce hinders Elko employers

Rob Sabo
rsabo@nnbw.biz

Barry Bhakta, owner of the Rodeway Inn in Elko, sums up Elko County’s labor issues quite succinctly.

“Labor is a pain,” Bhakta says. “We need more people.”

Two of Elko County’s largest employers, Barrick Gold and Newmont Mining Corp., have long been hard-pressed to fill highly skilled technical geologic, engineering and mechanical positions — though those pressures have eased somewhat with the falling price of gold in 2013. Smaller employers in the region, however, still struggle to fill lower-paying jobs and often are forced to pay workers in unskilled positions above-average wages to retain key employees.



Dave Zornes, chief executive officer of Play Elko Properties, says he can’t recall a time when he had full housekeeping staff at the Red Lion Inn or any of Play Elko’s three other hotel properties.

Zornes says that Elko’s limited labor pool makes it nearly impossible to find enough staff for unskilled positions, and his skilled workers in facilities maintenance and repair command premium wages so they won’t jump ship for similar positions at mining companies. The Red Lion employs 300 and often advertises for vacant positions in the Elko Daily Free Press.



The housing crunch in Elko County over the last five years also pushed up rents and home prices, making it even harder for Elko employers to draw workers to the region and fill vacant positions. And with a state-low 5.1 percent unemployment rate in November, Elko County has just 1,520 unemployed workers available, the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation reports. The region had 350 fewer unemployed workers between June and November, DETR reports.

“Our housekeepers, kitchen staff, wait staff and some of the lower-paying jobs have been really hard to fill” Zornes says. “Bringing someone out of town for a job at a casino is almost impossible — why would you come be a dealer for a casino in Elko when you could go to work for the mines and make a lot more money and have better benefits?

“There are not that many qualified people, and lower-income people are having a hard time finding affordable housing,” Zornes adds. “If you are going to be a chef or a cook, you almost have to have a roommate to be able to afford housing. On $10 or $12 an hour, it is pretty tough.”

Bhakta employs between 18 and 20 people full time between three smaller properties: Rodeway Inn, Days Inn and Comfort Inn.

The best way he’s found to retain employees and not lose them to competing properties is to bump up their pay. He mostly advertises by word of mouth among colleagues, co-workers and friends in the community.

“This is a very labor-intensive business; you have got to have people,” he says. “Right now we have a pretty good staff, but who knows who is next to quit?”

It’s no easier finding help for employers in the construction industry.

Luis Cortez has been doing stucco in town since 2001 and employs just under 20. Cortez says he’s struggled the past few years to find enough plasterers to complete work on schedule as Elko’s economy boomed. He’s looked for workers in Reno, Las Vegas and Arizona and also runs ads on Spanish-language radio.

Cortez says it’s extremely difficult to recruit someone who has experience with stucco work to move to Elko County when they’ll struggle to find an affordable place to live. He often puts workers up at a property he owns in town until they can find accommodations of their own.

“If I bring someone to town, the first thing they are going to ask me is if they have a place to stay. There’s no place to stay in Elko unless you have family here. There is no way you can find a place because it’s real expensive. That is the worst part.”

Oftentimes, Cortez hires unskilled workers and starts them out in basic jobs such as cleanup or hauling materials as they learn the plastering trade.

“A lot of guys right now are looking for work, but they don’t know how to do the trade,” Cortez says.

It’s even harder for out-of-town contractors to work in Elko. Rick Lofgran, superintendent for Rimrock Construction of Draper, Utah, says many of his company’s subcontractors come from Utah and Reno. Rimrock is developing the 107-unit Copperwood Apartments and expanding the Villas at Riverside with six 12-plexes.

Finding a place to house out-of-town workers is a challenge, Lofgren says, and it’s crucial to have steady work scheduled for them once they get into town.

“It has been a pretty big deal to keep help,” he says. “It has been tough because they have to have a Nevada license. They are all staying in hotels, so you really have to plan it out carefully since hotels have to be reserved.”

Summertime, when Elko’s special events season kicks into high gear and hotel rooms are full, makes it even harder to adhere to a construction schedule, Lofgren says. During the summer, contractors have been forced to rent rooms in Wells when Elko’s hotels and motels were at full occupancy.

“It takes a lot more scheduling and it does sometimes hold up the project, but we just do the best we can,” Lofgren says.