By Katie Vane and Angela Evan
Local businesses, employees scale back … and prayThe Eastern Sierra is reeling from one of the worst drought years in recent memory. It’s happened before, in the winter of ’76-’77, but as the third year of drought, this one remains noteworthy.
While many businesses have struggled tenaciously to stay afloat this season, post-Martin Luther King weekend, those same businesses are now having to make tough choices.
The dream of seasonal employment for many young people is coming to an end.
One employee at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA), who wished to remain anonymous, was cut to zero hours this past week. He was hired as a parking attendant in October, a position, he said, that was supposed to have more guaranteed hours. He quit his job as a night restocker at Vons to work for the Mountain. He had been working odd jobs and helping at construction sites since moving to Mammoth from North Carolina at the beginning of May.
“It’s been really challenging to find work that is stable,” he said. “It’s hard to find a career or a job to really invest in.” Before moving to Mammoth, he worked for a tree trimming business back east, a job he is returning to on February 1.
“I was planning on staying for one or two years but with work drying up I have to leave,” he said.
This employee’s experience is not unique. MMSA, the single largest employer in Mammoth, has avoided layoffs thus far by reducing many seasonal staff hours to zero. Even key seasonal ski instructors, those who have worked for multiple years at the Mountain, are down to two to three days a week.
Another Mountain employee, who also wished to remain anonymous, said that Administration feels terrible about the cuts. She noted that MMSA went out on a limb and hired more instructors this season after complaints from ski school staff of being overworked last season.
She noted that the Mountain also provided more training for instructors in the hope that they would get a greater number of returners. Now, she said, Admin. feels responsibility for the instructors, “their kids,” who can’t pay their bills.
A brief survey of town businesses revealed that not just MMSA employees are hurting. Restaurants and cafes are reducing hours of operation, staff hours, and sometimes staff.
Good Life Café is cutting employee hours and even closing a few nights a week for dinner. “You have to do it for survival,” Miguel Herrera, a manager, said. “So far we are still doing okay. Our morning business is good and we rely on our good local customers.”
However, should the dry season continue, “We will have to play it by ear and make changes as time goes by, unfortunately,” he said. “Our staff have been here for a long time and we were in this situation a couple of years ago, so they understand. But everyone, every family, has to budget for a season like this.”
Stellar Brew, which also enjoys a robust local and visiting clientele, recently posted its “no snow hours.” The kitchen will now close at 4 p.m., while the café will close at 5 p.m. on weekdays.
Manager Kyle Scalise noted that even last season he would have hired four to five more employees than are currently on staff. “Technically, we don’t really have anyone full time,” he said.
Scalise also addressed the effect that MMSA’s employee cuts are having on business. “A lot of seasonal people are leaving town,” he said. “This seasonal workforce is an important clientele for Stellar,” he added.
“Like everybody, we’re all in it together,” said Old New York Deli owner Michael Raimondo. While the Deli hasn’t had to terminate anyone, “We’ve had to lean [operations] out,” Raimondo said, closing early and bringing back specials such as the $5 burger “just like in the shoulder season.”
Raimonod also observed that, “In the 10 years since we’ve been open, we’ve never seen anything like this.”
Even bars aren’t immune to the downward trend in business. Lakanuki manager Marc DuPaul said that Lakanuki has reduced its hours and staff on weekdays. “We have one less person in pretty much every position,” he said. Although no staff has officially been laid off, “We just don’t schedule them,” he said. “They work on weekends, not on weekdays.”
Hotels and motels are hurting, too. Rod, the manager of Motel 6, said he’s only had one person at the front desk all season, as opposed to the normal two. “That’s 30 to 40 hours of work a week right there,” he said. Although they haven’t had to lay anyone off, they have had one employee quit who would rather take the unemployment than not get hours.
Motel 6 is also 80% down in occupancy. “Compared to last year, this is worse,” Rod said.
Meanwhile sporting good stores are battening down the hatches and praying for snow. Footloose, which offers positions to 60-70 full and part time employees, has had to lay off staff and reduce staff to zero hours. The cuts began as early as post-Christmas.
Said one Footloose employee, who wished to remain anonymous, “Moving forward, we will get down on our knees and pray for snow … [But] we know there is going to be snow, it’s just a matter of time.”
Tim Gallagher, a manager at Wave Rave, is still optimistic about the season. Wave Rave is “seeing decent business,” he said, and has not had to cut store hours. “Everyone is getting the time they want on the clock,” he said. Between the two store locations in Mammoth and Bishop, Wave Rave has 35 employees, but some are using the slow season as an opportunity to travel, or to take advantage of filming and snowboarding opportunities in other areas of the country that are getting snow.
“We haven’t had to adjust much yet, the key word being ‘yet,’” Tim said. “We were really good at hiring holiday help so that our full time employees are getting the hours they want.” But, he added, “We really need snow before President’s weekend.”
Dwindling employment options are affecting not only seasonal employees, but even long-time residents. Jeni, 24, who grew up in Mammoth, is moving south next week because of the lack of business in town. “With the last three dry seasons, I decided to be proactive and go back to school,” she said. “Working jobs dependent on tips is impossible when there aren’t people.”
Jeni’s mom worked for the Mountain while she was growing up, and Jeni has been working jobs around town since high school. She worked in management at the Mountain for years and has recently been a bartender and server at the Outlaw Saloon.
Although Jeni is still working four or five shifts a week because of her seniority, she can’t quite scrape by on the small tips. “We’re used to walking with $200 a night. This week we’ll start seeing $50 a night again. It just doesn’t work.
“My whole life has been dictated by snow,” she said. “I don’t want to leave my livelihood up to something so unpredictable.”