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'Where are my workers going to come from?'

Lack of affordable housing leads to shortage of workers in restaurants, retail


Argelia Ornelas has a problem filling positions at her restaurant.

“We used to be open 24 hours, but we've lost so many employees,” said Ornelas, the restaurant manager at Jack in the Box on Lincoln Avenue in Parker.

She said the restaurant is now open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“Just trying to get people to work, it's hard," she said.

Ornelas said most applications are from minors in the area, who by law, can't work after 10 p.m. Adult employees who worked the late shift left after deciding the commute, typically from cities with lower housing costs like Aurora, wasn't worth it.

As Parker grows and more businesses come to town —and its rents and home prices continue to rise — managers trying to staff their restaurants and stores are finding that there aren't enough local applicants.

“I've been hearing that for well over a year from business owners, restaurants especially,” said Weldy Feazell, business retention and marketing manager for Parker's Economic Development Department.

Feazell said retail owners have made the same complaints.

“Employees that typically fill these jobs are having to travel greater distances to get to work,” she said. “They're finding jobs closer to home.”

In 2015, 43 percent of Parker businesses reported having problems recruiting employees, and seven out of 61 businesses cited availability of trained workers as their biggest problem, according to research by the Economic Development Department. Nine other businesses couldn't get applications for all of their open positions.

Last year, 49.9 percent of businesses reported recruiting problems, with 15 of 36 respondents citing availability as their biggest challenge.

Recent expansion of RTD services has helped, Feazell said, “but it's not a full solution.” She's heard of managers in town picking up employees from the Lincoln Park N Ride station to get them to work. Feazell hasn't researched workforce housing data, but said the town needs “some sort of housing solution” in addition to more transportation to fill available jobs.

Gary Hatfield, district manager for Twisters Burgers and Burritos, said his store faces the same problems as Jack in the Box. Saagar Grover, Hatfield's boss, said the company even started paying a stipend to employees commuting from Aurora and other areas to attract them.

Insufficient public transportation is Hatfield's biggest complaint, but acknowledged “affordable housing is part of the grand scheme.”

In January, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Parker was $1,450, according to apartmentlist.com. By the end of last year, the median sales price for a single-family home was more than $430,000, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors.

Parker's predicament isn't unique, according to Patrick Holwell, workforce economist for Arapahoe/Douglas Works. Holwell said the lack of affordable living space is affecting the entire metro region, increasing commuting distances and time workers spend on the road. He added that having a talent pool close by is as important for business owners as keeping a job is to their employees.

“It's a nuts-and-bolts issue that local governments really need to hash out,” Holwell said. “It's hard enough to start a business without worrying `where are my workers going to come from?' ”

Holwell acknowledges that transportation is part of the economic balance, but he said most people don't understand how critical the housing piece of the equation is.

For many employees at retail shops or restaurants, he said, a flat tire on the way to work could mean a pink slip. Commuting employees also face a decrease in their quality of life if they spend a significant chunk of their day driving to and from work.

They “live where they can afford — if they don't live within a reasonable distance to where they work, they're not going to work in that area,” he said. “Those people make the economy in Douglas County work, they have to have places to live.”


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