Labor shortage challenges North Bay employers

Celia Campos and her husband, Francisco, grew up in Calistoga and would love to live in their hometown, where their relatives still reside.

But they have realized they will never be able to afford a home in this tourist town of slightly more than 5,000 citizens with no room to grow, sandwiched between the Diamond and Howell mountains. Over the past two years, the typical Calistoga home has sold for about $850,000.

“Who can buy a home here?” Campos noted. “It’s crazy.”

And that’s a massive problem for the city’s economy, a town in Napa County where the vast majority of the 320 businesses are tied to the hospitality industry.

Like many places around the North Coast, it’s a place that relies on busboys, janitors, maids, cooks, servers and others in the service industry to provide a luxury experience for the affluent visitors who drive the local economy.

But business owners realize there are virtually no workers available to hire in Calistoga, where the unemployment rate was an astounding 0.8 percent in October. They are scrambling to do something to change that.

“Hands down, the No. 1 issue is access to a qualified workforce,” said Chris Canning, president of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce.

Earlier this year, merchants working with the Chamber of Commerce launched a program to ferry workers in a shuttle - a luxury coach with leather seats and wifi - to Calistoga from three different stops in Santa Rosa, charging a nominal fee to the employees.

Research found that about 22 percent of Calistoga workers came from Santa Rosa, 21 percent from Napa and as far south as Vallejo, and around ?11 percent from Lake County, Canning said.

The program was scrapped after two months. Only a handful of workers participated, and businesses were reluctant to continue the program without better results.

But Canning is convinced that another employer-sponsored effort will have to be done, especially as two major resorts are scheduled to open in Calistoga within two years, requiring another 500 workers.

“This is a very different job market than we were used to in the past,” he said. “Gone are the days in the hospitality business where you can run on part-time workers with no benefits.”

Welcome to the new normal in the North Bay, an economy largely represented by service workers, given how much tourism drives the area. But the worker shortage is not just limited to the hospitality sector. Overall, unemployment in Sonoma County stood at 3.9 percent in October, compared to 5.3 percent for California and 4.7 percent for the nation during the same period. Napa County was at 3.8 percent and Marin County was at 3.3 percent.

Calistoga arguably has experienced the most severe shortage of workers in the North Bay, but analysts say no city is immune to the pressures, which will only get worse barring an economic setback, such as a recession.

Areas such as construction, health care and manufacturing are also facing a worker crunch, said Heather LoBue, business services program manager for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. LoBue helps local businesses find qualified workers and sees firsthand where the greatest needs are.

“I think people have to get on board, especially employers, and figure out a plan or a strategy,” LoBue said.

Some will have to hike wages. The minimum wage is $10 an hour, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation this year taking it to $15 an hour by 2022. But locally, entry-level pay starts at around $12 an hour in many places that have experienced worker shortages, employers said, and will reach $15 an hour much earlier than the state mandate.

In fact, the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board recently surveyed job seekers to determine what type of pay range they expected. Applicants overwhelmingly put in a range from $15 to $18 an hour, LoBue said.

But employers also will have to go beyond pay and look at benefits and other perks as well, she said.

If the business community wants further proof, they can ask the Camposes.

The two work at the Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga, she as the shipping fulfillment coordinator and he as the warehouse manager, commuting from their Santa Rosa home 40 minutes each way on an increasingly crowded Mark West Springs Road. The couple have three children ages 9, 7 and 3. They have to get out on time to pick up the children in after-school programs at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Rosa before it closes at 6 p.m.

So why do they put up with such a commute when there are plenty of available winery jobs closer to their home?

“It’s definitely because of the company,” Campos said. “It’s nice to be appreciated that way by the boss.”

That boss is winery founder Dario Sattui. And what Sattui has done is provided benefits and perks that could rival what some Bay Area tech firms do to lure programmers.

Employees who ride share, take public transportation, bike or walk to work can earn $5 per round trip if the route is less than 15 miles, and $10 per round trip for those greater than 15 miles. Sattui said he wanted to help his workers who commute long distances and cut down on local traffic, especially on crowded Highway 29. A 2014 study by the Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency found that 55 percent of the traffic was caused by people who live and work in the county - and not tourists.

“I think it’s a big challenge. There is not enough low-cost housing,” said Sattui, who noted that many of his workers must commute from as far as American Canyon and at times even Sacramento and San Leandro.

He added that Calistoga’s short-lived shuttle program, while laudable, was not designed properly because it only stopped at three locations in Santa Rosa. “It’s too inconvenient,” he said of the program.

But Sattui does more than that. Entry level pay starts at $13 to $14 an hour, and tour guides and direct sales personnel can make $18 an hour and above. The winery has a profit-sharing plan that can provide workers up to 15 to 20 percent of their pay.

Workers get four weeks of paid vacation after five years. The winery even has helped with down-payment assistance for some workers.

“I know it’s expensive, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” Sattui said. “We expect in return, they will work hard for us.”

What’s Sattui is doing is part of an arm’s race among local employers who realize that to lure top employees, the pay and benefits must be better than the competition.

LoBue noted that some industries, such as hospitality and health care, also can compete for the same pool of talent as janitorial and food-preparation companies, making it even more difficult to land top prospects.

Employers in this environment cannot just rely on placing ads on Craigslist and waiting for workers to come to them, LoBue said. They must be active, whether holding on-site career fairs or offering storytelling content for a prospective applicant on why they should work for their company.

“You want to show a career (path) and where it could lead for them,” she said. “You actually find people will take a job because the employer is developing the person. You will find that people will also stay around longer.”

The Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park, which has become one of the county’s largest employers with ?2,000 workers, recently opened a 200-room hotel, which required 300 people to staff. It conducts a job fair to recruit workers.

“We want that face-to-face contact,” said Joe Hasson, vice president and general manager. “The first thing we look for is friendliness. Are you a friendly person? And can we see that in your own life experience and if you’re comfortable with communicating that with other people?

“A job fair is great environment to do that,” Hasson said.

Those applicants can find entry-level wages at $12 an hour with opportunity for advancement. Some positions, such as bartenders and card dealers, offer the opportunity for tips that can increase pay well beyond $20 an hour, Hasson said.

But a main sweetener is its health plan. Employees don’t pay anything out of their paycheck for medical, dental and vision coverage. Full-family coverage would be $40 a month and those who work 20 or more hours a week are eligible, he said.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery also offers health coverage for workers who have 20 hours or more a week. It, too, has ramped up hiring as it has opened up Werowocomoco, its new Native American restaurant at Virginia Dare Winery. That required about 40 new positions, and it is still looking for a restaurant manager.

“We say we are a big family,” said Stefanie Loop Indart, people operations recruiter for the winery. “Everybody is taken care of.”

Indart said she recruits at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University, especially for seasonal positions at the winery’s pool area during the summer. But the winery also looks for applicants who are semi-retired and want a part-time position. A recent hire spent 30 years as nurse before coming aboard at the Geyserville property.

The legalization of marijuana, in fact, will put even more pressure on the wine industry.

During this year’s harvest, vineyard managers reported a lack of available workers; some are worried that cannabis agricultural work could siphon away many of the up to 6,000 workers who come to Sonoma County to work in the vineyards.

The cannabis industry could look to poach talent inside wineries, too, vying for business professionals in marketing, finance and executive positions.

“Where the cannabis industry is going to be growing rapidly, they are going to be looking for these top-level people,” said Michael Kelly Brown, vice president of consumer sales at Sokol Blosser Winery in Dayton, Oregon. The Beaver State permitted cannabis recreational use last October. “It’s not just an ag-labor thing. It’s an everything-labor thing.”

Sattui of Castello di Amorosa, however, said he is ready for any competition that may come his way. Last week, he was in the process of buying a home in Calistoga that could house up to five of his employees, who would pay rent at a subsidized rate.

“If you get a good employee, we really try hard not to lose that employee,” Sattui said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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