Keith Parker, who installs automatic gates, had to dig a hole by himself for 16 hours in August when two workers he had lined up never showed. Plumber Mitch Milner could work seven days a week, 24 hours a day if he wanted to, with the number of jobs coming to him. Landscaper Shana Behan works “sun up to sun down,” many times with her 9-month-old strapped to her in a backpack. And car mechanic Mark Pearson spends most of his time on the phone with clients or in front of a computer doing work that used to be done by employees who no longer exist.
“We are very busy,” said Behan, who owns Kings Beach-based A Thyme to Plant with her partner Juan Muñoz. “The struggle is real … It’s been challenging.”
All the home services business owners interviewed by Moonshine Ink for this article echoed Behan’s sentiments, stating they are “overworked” and there’s “too much work.” A lack of local workforce, coupled with an influx of new homeowners to the Tahoe/Truckee area, is putting a strain on specialty trade contractors. Whereas these owners could once outsource certain jobs to skilled laborers, they are now finding themselves unable to find people to hire, and instead doing the work of several employees. Many times they are working longer days and into the night.
“It’s a big balancing act,” said Big Bear Automotive Repair, Inc. owner Mark Pearson, who does all the estimates, appointment scheduling, work orders, and contacting of customers for his 18-year-old Tahoe City mechanic shop. His wife, Renee, and son, Greg, work with him. “Everybody is stretched thin. There is less free time. We are exhausted by the time we get home.”
Marijane “Mj” Rees and Michael Willson have owned Mr. Honey-Do, a handyman and concierge service with general contractor capabilities, for 16 years. The Alpine Meadows-based business currently employs 15 workers, serving all of Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and Reno. But even with help, the couple said they find themselves working long days, sometimes seven days a week.
“We are doing double time to keep ourselves alive,” Rees said.
‘A Zero Workforce Pandemic’
The number one problem, these owners said, is a lack of employees. With an inflated local real estate market and limited workforce housing, the employees who used to do these jobs are moving farther away from the area, leaving businesses in a lurch. The Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe (CATT) is hearing this concern from its 400 members; the situation mirrors employee shortages across the country.
“I am hearing from our CATT members that workforce shortage issues are most challenging this year, and continue to impact companies negatively,” stated CATT Executive Director Kellie Cutler in an email to Moonshine Ink. “It’s hard to run any business or company when you cannot find employees. There is high demand for construction/housing in the Tahoe region right now, which magnifies the issue. Those that are working are taking on a much heavier workload to cover the gaps.”
Keith Parker is one such business owner. He owns Incline Village-based Parker Construction, LLC, and works 50 to 60 hours a week, not counting bookkeeping, writing bids, and doing other paperwork that he completes after hours. He currently focuses on installing automatic gates and caretaking large properties on Lakeshore Drive in Incline Village. A one-man operation now, Parker’s 21-year-old business is suffering because he can’t find workers.
“All our guys have left,” lamented Parker, noting that he used to have in-house workers on all his managed properties for landscaping and other work. “Temporary labor is impossible to find.”
Now Parker turns to social media to hunt for workers. He has posted job offers in 20 different Facebook groups that collectively reach more than 100,000 people, and some of his posts have been viewed more than 8,000 times. Of those posts and views, Parker has had contact with fewer than 10 people seeking work this summer. And of those, he ended up hiring three temporary workers who then left once the nearby wildfires started because they work for Cal Fire.
“There is simply no one to hire anymore,” Parker said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. There is no one to do the work, yet the work still needs to be done.”
Mitch Milner has the same woes. He and his wife, Sarah, own Carnelian Bay-based MSM Plumbing, Inc. and currently employee five people, although they could use more. Mitch said he spent $4,000 in three months this past winter advertising on social media searching for employees, only to end up with three applicants and no workers. Those who do work for his 19-year-old plumbing business were already his friends or acquaintances.
“It is a new epidemic,” Milner said. “A zero workforce pandemic.”
For CATT’s part, the organization advertises job openings in weekly emails to members. Natalie Yanish, CATT’s communications manager, said the organization also collaborates with the community and schools to get youth interested in construction trades through its Workforce Development committee. But Yanish said business owners are willing to train their employees in their specific industry. And trade workers are needed. Sixty percent of construction firms in the U.S. and 67% of construction firms in California had unfilled hourly craft positions as of June 30, 2020, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.
People in the specialty trades, like plumbers and electricians, are especially feeling the burden. Truckee-based Wright Electric Co. has been in business since 1969. Ken Wright, who took the company over from his father in 1986, is a second-generation electrician who currently has two employees, including a lead technician who has been with him since 2002, and his daughter, who does admin work for the business. But he worries about what is going to happen to the future of the electrician profession and other trades with the lack of interest in them.
“Once they start quitting and retiring, it is going to be really tough,” Wright said of current tradespeople. “Where are all the service people going to come from?”
Wright hopes to pass his electrical business down to his children, but they have all moved to Auburn or the Bay Area, having been priced out of the Truckee housing market. His daughter currently drives from Auburn to Truckee to help her dad.
“Bringing in out-of-town people to work here is almost impossible,” Wright said. “The family is thinking about taking it over for a third generation, but where do they live?”
The lack of workforce housing has compelled owners to get creative. Landscapers Behan and Muñoz try to secure work visas every year for Muñoz’s family in Mexico to come work for them, which proved especially difficult when Covid hit. Rees and Willson, of Mr. Honey-Do, seek more Reno jobs so their employees don’t have to travel as far.
And some owners are even looking to house their employees. Amber Watson, office manager for Arbor Care of Tahoe, said owner T.J. Johnson is considering purchasing a home to house his employees. The Tahoe-City based tree care company has fewer employees, but more work these days, she said.
“It has put a lot of strain on the business,” Watson said. “We can’t expand; that’s the problem. The housing crisis is worse than the Covid crisis.”
Milner, of MSM Plumbing, knows first-hand about how the lack of housing affects business. In early August, he and his wife, Sarah, who was born and raised in North Tahoe, were forced to move out of their Kings Beach home to Reno. Now Milner adds a longer commute time to his already hectic day.
“Getting there and getting home is taking longer than it ever has,” said Milner, who has one employee who commutes even farther, to and from Minden. “I try to prioritize family time, but the commute is a strain.”
While a decrease in local workforce and a lack of housing were issues before Covid, what is new is an increased demand for services. The influx of new residents is causing more need than the business owners can keep up with. Many mentioned having the ability to “pick and choose” what projects they will take on.
“We have a lot more calls for business. It allows us to be more selective in what we do,” said Jim Easterbrook, owner of Easterbrook Painting. “We have to learn to say no. We have to only take on so much work.”
Easterbrook, who has owned his Truckee-based painting business for 20 years, has 25 employees. He said his business is receiving “an insane amount” of requests for interior painting, and has booked projects out for a year.
Pearson of Big Bear Automotive said he has stopped taking on some work since he does not have the staff or the time to do it all. He is currently booked out a week and a half, which means he can’t help those in emergency situations.
“It’s stressful when you have someone on the phone broke down. They are here on vacation and we have to send them somewhere else,” Pearson said. “It’s not a good business model to tell people ‘no.’”
Every business owner we talked to mentioned the increase of work and calls for service. Mr. Honey-Do’s Rees said that in one day, she took 22 phone calls and answered 30 emails.
“The phone is continually ringing,” she said.
All the owners said they are thankful for the work, but know that something has to give. It’s just a matter of when.
“We have more business than we know what to do with,” Rees said. “It’s a higher demand than this small town and environment can handle.”