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Businesses offer housing incentives to attract workers

By Katy Savage

Like most business owners, Chris Karr has struggled to find employees in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Karr, the owner of six restaurants in Killington, usually employs up to 150 people in the peak season, but when the pandemic hit, he cut his staff by about half. Now he’s hiring those people back. 

“We lost a lot of workforce in Vermont with this pandemic,” Karr said. “A lot of people moved on from those positions and started doing other things.” 

Some employers have raised wages and offered retention incentives to attract workers. 

Karr started offering employee housing. 

“Not to give out my trade secrets, but it’s definitely made a difference,” Karr said. 

Karr has seven units in Rutland, close to the bus route, and is looking for another 4-5 units. 

“We can put an ad out that says we’re looking for staff and we’re fortunate if we get an application,” Karr said. “As soon as we put in how we have lodging options for people, the emails blow up.”

Karr said he charges his employees about $100 a week for lodging — well below fair market value. 

“At this point, lodging in Killington is cost prohibitive,” he said. “We need town employees to be able to afford to live in the town.”

Karr said he avoided employee-employer landlord situations in the past, but the pandemic necessitated a change.

“That was a missing component. We changed our model,” he said. “I never wanted to be a landlord to my staff, but right now my business needs me to be a landlord so I have staff.” 

Karr also hired an in-house recruiter.

Kelsey Cruickshank joined the Karr Group in June 2021 as the company’s first recruiter. 

“She knows she has job security,” Karr said. “We had to do it.”

Cruickshank has a background in resort management and was formerly a lift operation supervisor at Killington Resort. Cruickshank estimated she hired around 73 people for Karr Group last year. 

“The housing makes all the difference in the world,” Cruickshank said.  “It’s a barrier to entry — trying to secure housing when you’re not familiar with the area is a barrier.”

Cruickshank said employees are coming from across the country. One from North Carolina was offered a job on a Friday and was working in Killington by Sunday. She’s also had interest from employees in Florida. 

“It’s made a significant difference,” Cruickshank said. “We have so many more applicants.”

Other businesses have also found success with employee lodging.

Killington Resort started offering employee housing in 2018 at the Mendon Mountainview Lodge and is currently renting the entire Hillside Inn in Killington with plans to buy it. 

Combined, both locations can house about 300 resort employees.

“We had some staff work for us instead of other resorts because of our current housing offerings,” said  Kristel Killary, the PR/communications and social media manager at the resort.

The Woodstock Inn has traditionally offered employee housing. 

The inn has a mix of apartments, single family homes and dormitory spaces. The inn can house up to 85 employees, but needs more housing. 

“We’d like to be able to house another 25-30 more,” Woodstock Inn president Courtney Lowe said. “We are all still searching. We have a couple of very small leases.”

The inn has 180 year-round employees and can have up to 400 staff in total. 

“We’re just like everybody else, we have quite a few positions available,” Lowe said.

Lowe said the pandemic combined with the housing shortage has made it harder to fill positions. “It’s gotten much harder to attract employees to the area due to the costs of living,” Lowe said. 

The problem extends beyond local towns.

A 2021 study published by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) revealed the nationwide average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,231.  In order to afford this level of rent and utilities — without paying more than 30% of income on housing — a household must earn $23.08 an hour or $49,258 annually. About 29% of the population rents housing, the study found, and the average person renting makes just $13.83 an hour.

Another 2021 study from Career Cloud showed Vermont has the fourth-largest labor shortage. Nationally, trade, transportation and utilities were the sectors with the most open positions, followed by professional and business services, education and health services, and leisure and hospitality. 

“For the most part, it’s not a shortage of workers that’s the problem, per se. It’s a sign that employers just need to offer better packages of wages and working conditions to attract workers,” Robert Triest, an economics professor at Northeastern University, said in the study.

Organizations and town leaders are trying to address the problem locally. The Woodstock Economic Development Commission is looking at short- and long-term solutions for affordable housing while both Killington and Rutland City are applying to become Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, which would help fund major redevelopment projects , including affordable housing in the area. 

“I know there’s an appetite in town and around the area to try to find more housing for employees,” Lowe said. 

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