Ron Angel has taken one vacation in his adult life. It’s not because he loves the workaday world, he just can’t afford a break.
Like thousands of Bonner County residents, Angel, 45, struggles to make ends meet in the seasonal work force of this pricey tourist town. He works several jobs to keep the paychecks coming - jobs that pay little, offer no benefits or a retirement plan.
“The one vacation I had was with Christmas money I got from relatives,” said Angel. In the next six months he will work as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. When he gets laid off, he will look for carpentry jobs or draw unemployment while his wife cleans homes to bring in extra cash.
“You forget vacations and learn to do without things,” he said. “Job security is pretty much nonexistent here and regular 9-5 jobs are almost impossible to find.”
Full-time work is hard to come by in Bonner County. Hundreds of residents, like many in the Idaho Panhandle, survive working two or three jobs, mostly tied to the fickle tourist trade. They go from ski hills in the winter to the forests or restaurants in summer.
It’s a harsh cycle, leaving people without jobs for months, and guessing when the next job will materialize. The on-again, off-again work force makes unemployment rates jump and sales slump.
In Sandpoint, the fast-growing mail-order catalog company, Coldwater Creek, lists 745 of its employees as temporary workers out of a work force of more than 1,000, according to its stock prospectus. Many are hired to help with the busy Christmas season, earning $6 an hour with no benefits, say current employees.
Schweitzer Mountain Resort has 320 seasonal employees. They will be hunting for new jobs when the ski season ends in two weeks. Some of the resort workers will leapfrog to the Forest Service, which adds about 130 temporary workers for the summer.
Hundreds of construction workers, loggers and tree farmers still are on unemployment after being shut down for the winter. The unemployment cycle will hit another group of workers after the summer tourism rush here. That’s when restaurants, retail businesses and the city lay off their temporary employees.
“A seasonal job market is not the best way to run an economy but it’s better than no jobs at all,” said Idaho Department of Labor analyst Kathryn Tacke.
Of the 16,628 people considered Bonner County’s work force, at least 2,000 of them are temporary or seasonal workers. The state does not track the number of part-time or seasonal workers, so it’s difficult to tell just how many there really are, Tacke said.
“It seems like a built-in part of the economy here. We have a large percentage of people who don’t work year-round,” said Sandpoint Job Service Manager Denny Scollon.
“People have a lot of difficulty making ends meet with the jobs in this area. We don’t have a lot of those jobs that pay what would be considered a livable wage. To have as many unemployed as we do at any given time, I can’t say that is good for the economy.”
The February unemployment rate in Bonner County was 12.4 percent. Last year, Scollon’s office paid out about $4.9 million in unemployment benefits in Bonner County.
“That’s a pretty fair amount,” he said, noting the Panhandle has the highest level of unemployment claims of any region in the state.
For some residents, it’s gut-wrenching not knowing when the next job will open up - if at all. Others accept the job juggling, low pay and erratic schedules as a tradeoff for the quality of life North Idaho offers.
“Ideally we would all like to have full-time jobs with benefits. If you want that, it’s out there, but not in Sandpoint. You sacrifice something to live here,” said Pam Auletta, 41. She tends bar at Schweitzer Mountain Resort in the winter. In summer, she helps her husband run Hope Marine Service, a business they own.
Auletta has lived here 15 years. She and her husband are raising three kids, make half of what they did when they lived in California, and work harder.
“There’s always a question of whether you will be rehired when you have to leave a job and return every season,” Auletta said. “But if you want work here you can find it. It may not be the pay scale you want, but in my opinion it’s worth it. It’s a great place to live and raise a family.”
Seasonal work has been a tradition in the Panhandle that started with timber and agricultural jobs. Those professions still bolster the economy but are being overtaken by summer tourism and the ski industry, Tacke said.
“The irony is we have diversified the labor force in the Panhandle, but have not reduced the seasonality of the work. We have only replaced one set of seasonal jobs with another set of seasonal jobs.”
The local Health and Welfare office sees a dramatic rise in the number of people applying for food stamps in the winter and spring when jobs are particularly scarce. Cases of child and spousal abuse also tend to rise.
“Tension are high, people are not working and are apprehensive because they don’t know when or if they will be going back to work,” Tacke said. “It also impacts almost everyone who sells things in the community. Businesses will see a decline in sales this time of year because people have lower incomes. There are a lot of costs associated with seasonal economies.”
Bonnie Lackey, 53, calls Idaho the “right not to work” state. When she and her husband moved from Northern California to Sandpoint the concept of not working 40-hours a week, year-round was a foreign one.
“When I heard people only work part of the year I said, ‘What? You don’t eat the rest of the year?”’
Lackey works part-time at Coldwater Creek while her husband works year-round at Schweitzer. She doesn’t really need the job, unlike many of her temporary co-workers who survive hopping from job to job.
“The ones I know have thought this out and made that lifestyle a conscious choice - a choice of freedom over financial gain,” she said. “They have thrown away the suits, ulcers and stress and are going to enjoy life. They work enough to keep a roof over their head. People here are very flexible and will try anything to get enough money to make it through.”
The increasing number of seasonal jobs is not necessarily a bad thing. It means Bonner County is growing and not stagnant or losing jobs, said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jonathan Coe.
The ski hill and Lake Pend Oreille, which drives the tourist economy and requires a seasonal work force, also attracts new businesses and entrepreneurs. Coe rattled off a list of about 10 companies that weren’t here 10 years ago, including Coldwater Creek. Even though Coldwater has a huge temporary work force, it has hired hundreds of full-time workers as it has grown.
“That is the big story of what is happening to our economy. We have these businesses coming in small and creating significant job levels,” he said. “The reality is Bonner County has always had a seasonal economy. We have adapted to it and cope very well.”
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