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Empty Aisles

Tahoe workforce shortage strikes one industry that consumers cannot avoid: grocery stores
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That season is upon us again — the time of year when locals know to plan their grocery shopping trips carefully. Weekends and early evenings are now off-limits, unless you want to stand in line for longer than it takes to actually shop around the store. But, while the crowds are undoubtedly affected by the influx of people in Tahoe during peak tourism season, they might have more to do with the hiring struggle that area grocery stores are facing.

Save Mart Supermarket in Truckee currently employs 55 people, though the store could really use another 10-15 workers, says store manager Carl Linville. In recent years, he has seen interest in the store’s jobs decline — recently, a position stayed posted for 120 days with no applicants. Hiring isn’t an issue exclusive to grocery stores. As one of the only corporate chains in Truckee, the way Linville is forced to deal with Tahoe’s lack of workforce differs from how an individually-owned business can adapt to this obstacle.

The lack of a full staff manifests itself in a decline in customer service, in-store presence, and employee morale, Linville says.

“We would like to give [customers] a pristine store with lots of help,” Linville says. “When you’re working six days a week for long periods of time, it’s difficult. In the summertime, this store had the highest productivity in the company, but only because we didn’t have enough help for the sales we made. It’s a hard working environment when you get to that level.”

Linville estimates 80 percent of his workforce commutes from outside of Truckee, mostly from Reno, including Linville himself. Truckee is just too expensive for many of his employees to live, and finding affordable housing is the top barrier to living here. Workers are willing to travel from Reno because the California unions that govern grocery worker contracts pay slightly better than those in Nevada, but it’s still not enough to account for cost of living in Tahoe.

And, while having union influence on wages should protect workers, in Tahoe the maximum wages that are set actually work against managers like Linville looking to fill positions, because they do not account for the high expense of living in Tahoe. Linville says he sees 80 to 90 percent of his staff turn over annually. While other area businesses have added incentives to draw in employees, like higher pay, ski resort season passes, or even help with housing, Linville is limited in what he can offer. He has attempted to get hiring and retention bonuses approved to mitigate the turnover rate, but so far, the company has not complied.

“We have to pay people more money; they can’t afford to live up here,” said Linville. “The union rate covers all the way from Fresno up to here, it doesn’t take into account cost of living.”

These factors are why Save Mart and other area grocery stores have become so reliant on the J1 foreign student visa program. The additional seasonal workforce has been a lifeline for Linville, and provides him with extra help in the peak winter and summer months when he needs it the most. The students want to work as many hours as possible, Linville said, and he is more than willing to give them all the overtime hours they want, which is appealing to them because then they can survive their time in Tahoe working only one job. He has no problem justifying the overtime costs, because the store is already below its budgeted personnel costs by $100,000 since it is so understaffed, Linville said. As an added bonus, he even makes sure the students have a ride home at night, since the buses stop running before they clock out, and they often don’t have transportation of their own.

But this year, a change in the program might mean Linville will lose out on much of that seasonal workforce. The agency that places the students has now said it will not do any legwork to secure housing for them. It contends that it is now the responsibility of the employer, which Linville said his office does not have the bandwidth to handle. Starting this month, Linville only has three J1 students confirmed to work for him, where he usually would see 13, and that’s only because one of his employees has offered to rent rooms to the students. If the students cannot find housing, they will not be able to sign on to work for him.

Right now, Save Mart’s staffing issue is slightly mitigated by bringing in workers from other areas of the state to help with the worst holiday weeks: the weeks around New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July, but that’s no small undertaking. Linville has to book hotels for these workers during the most expensive lodging periods of the year. And while he’s grateful for the temporary fix, he knows it’s not a solution to the pervasive problem at hand.

 
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March 14, 2019