Each year since 1982, Grand Teton National Park – with its statuesque mountains, valleys and lakes – hosts one of the premier conferences for the world’s top officials steering the U.S. and global economies.
But like all major events, the conference couldn’t happen without thousands of workers – cabdrivers, cooks, cashiers – in and around Jackson, Wyo. And they are finding it tougher to make a living in the area, as costs for housing, gas and food become painfully out of reach.
The small yet sought-after town has always been a tough place to live affordably. But inflation has widened that gap, making Jackson, in particular, a pinnacle of inequality in the U.S. economy. The median price for a home in Jackson topped $2 million last year, as wealthy households and investors scoop up the few homes available. Local rent is up 12.4%. That has left many workers critical to the area’s hospitality and tourism industries clamoring for affordable apartments, commuting from hours away, or working multiple jobs to make ends meet.
“I don’t think the economy works for me right now,” said Jesus Montiel, who lives 90 minutes outside of Jackson and works at a toy store in town. “I can’t even find a home for sale anywhere near Jackson that’s less than one million dollars. And that’s for a one bedroom.”
Starting Thursday, Federal Reserve officials and many others will descend upon the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium, hosted by the Kansas City Fed, to discuss the same inflationary forces plaguing so many of those who work behind the scenes to ensure this charming mountain town continues to shine for tourists.
From a former hotel cook to a taxi driver, here are some of their stories.
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– Ricky Kairos, former hotel cook
When Ricky Kairos moved to Jackson four years ago, his first home was a small room, no kitchen, shared with a fellow employee at the Four Seasons Resort. Kairos shared a bathroom with multiple other workers, and lived directly across the hall from the hotel restaurant where he worked as a cook. The employee housing cost him $750 a month.
“That was pretty high up in my monthly budget, considering I was making $18-something an hour,” Kairos, 28, said. “It didn’t really leave me a lot of options. It was my first time coming to the area . . . But pretty quickly, I figured out I wasn’t going to be able to save anything.”
Kairos left his Four Seasons job after four months to finish culinary school, then returned to Jackson, seeking a job in a local restaurant. But steady work was hard to find: Tourism booms during the summer and winter. In the off seasons, tourism and hospitality industries scale back, leaving many workers either without jobs, or with significantly reduced hours, for weeks or months on end.
“The job stability – ‘am I going to have this job 52 weeks a year?’ – is really hard,” Kairos said. “As somebody who wants to make this their home and be here over the long term, it was really hard to ride that wave.”
For Kairos, the best thing to come from his stint at the Four Seasons was meeting his fiance, Irwing Bernal. When they couldn’t find affordable housing, the couple moved in with Bernal’s mother in Victor, Idaho, 25 miles away. The town is home to many Jackson commuters.
Now, Kairos and his fiance have more stable jobs, both working for Jackson’s public school system. On $25 an hour, the only way Kairos can imagine moving closer is if the school system or local government makes more employee housing available. Sixty-one people who worked for the school district resigned last year, overwhelmingly because they couldn’t find places to live, according to local officials.
“I would love to stay, but our biggest fear is they don’t raise our wages, and the price for a two-bedroom apartment in Jackson is $600,000,” Kairos said. “There’s no physical way I would ever be able to pay that off.”
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Jesus Montiel, toy store sales manager
The drive from Jesus Montiel’s mobile home to his job as a sales manager at Teton Toys takes 90 minutes. On slushy winter mornings, or at the end of a 14-hour workday, he relies on energy drinks to stay alert on the winding canyon roads.
Montiel, 22, pays $950 a month for the trailer that’s home to his family, including his wife and 2 1/2-year-old daughter in Afton, Wyo., some 70 miles away. His uncle owns the mobile home park, which is part of the reason the family decided to live far outside of town.
But sometimes, Montiel doesn’t make it home. To save on gas and commuting time, Montiel will often crash on a friend or co-worker’s couch if that means he can sleep closer to the toy shop in Jackson.
Montiel earns $25 an hour – a good wage, but with the cost of gas and food so high, he’s been taking on as many extra shifts as possible to make his budget work. The grocery tab for his family runs around $400 a month. Montiel’s wife, Krista Mason, stays home with their daughter, because child care is so expensive.
“I’m working a lot of overtime,” Montiel said. “It’s the only way I’m able to afford everything that I need to.”
Five years since moving to the area, Montiel said the exhausting commute is ultimately worth it. He estimates that his job in Jackson pays double what he’d make in Afton, where he said “a lot of the jobs are more for entry level [workers] or high-schoolers.” He takes pride in his work, helping customers find exactly what they’re looking for and keeping the store looking tidy.
“My biggest thing I’m trying to do is bring a smile to people,” Montiel said. “In the time that we’re living in, it can be very difficult.”
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Marcela Badillo, cafeteria worker
For Marcela Badillo to own a house in Jackson, she had to build it.
Badillo, 37, lives in a Habitat for Humanity home, not too far from her job serving food in a high school cafeteria. Her three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse is a far cry from the hotel room where she and her four children once lived when they had nowhere else to go.
About seven years ago, Badillo said she made enough to cover her family’s expenses working as a breastfeeding counselor and a house cleaner. But then her landlord abruptly decided to sell her rental home, she said, and put her in a frantic search for affordable rent. As she scoured for apartments in Jackson, she found that a handful of rentals accepted pets – but had unusual rules barring children. So her family crammed into a hotel room with two small beds, one bathroom and a kitchenette.
“It’s hard, having little ones and living in a hotel, with a family of six living in one small room,” Badillo said. “It wasn’t even a studio.”
When Badillo applied to build and own a Habitat for Humanity home in 2017, she was nervous her paperwork wouldn’t even be considered. When she immigrated at age 17 from Mexico, she was an illegal resident. Years later, she secured a worker visa, but was still waiting for her resident card when she sent in her application to Habitat, a nonprofit that helps homeowners build their own homes and secure an affordable mortgage.
It was accepted, and Badillo and her loved ones put in 500 hours helping construct her new townhouse. Her family moved in one year later.
“It’s tiny, but it’s my house,” Badillo said. “And I don’t have to worry that the owner is going to sell the house, or about where we’re going to move. Even if it’s tiny, we’re so grateful because we have a place to call home.”
Badillo said she’s especially relieved to own her own home as the cost of living strains every other part of her budget. Groceries, gas and clothes are more expensive than ever. Her children range in age from 10 to 18 years, and, Badillo said, “it’s impossible to keep them in the same shoes for a long time.”
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Jeff Monteith, taxi driver
As an employee at the majestic Jackson Lake Lodge for nine years, Jeff Monteith knew that the Fed’s annual conference was one of the hallmarks of the summer tourist season.
Monteith started working at the lodge after meeting his girlfriend, Emily Claassen, who planned events at the lodge. For more than a decade, Claassen helped put on the Fed’s conference, setting up rooms and planning menus for the three-day symposium. Monteith drove guests to scenic float trips on the nearby Snake River, and later worked as a bellman. Through work, they got year-round employee housing.
“We were here for the guests,” Monteith said. “We were here to show everyone a good time.”
After almost a decade at the lodge, Monteith worked briefly at a private airport in Jackson, then became a professional limousine and taxi driver for a local company.
When Monteith and Claassen left their jobs at the lodge, they also lost their guaranteed housing. They started looking last year, and it quickly became clear they couldn’t afford to buy a home in town. Even the competition for rentals stunned Monteith.
“I lived in New York City for 30 years, and moved around from apartment to apartment,” he said. “I thought I could always find something in a month. How wrong I was.”
They eventually found a spacious rental house about 25 minutes outside of Jackson.
This summer, gas prices hit Monteith hard, especially as it hovered around $5.25 per gallon in Jackson. Higher prices at the pump meant he got paid less for each ride. Summers are already tighter for drivers, Monteith added, as more tourists rent cars than during the winter ski season.
“We have set prices, and those prices have not changed since gas prices have gone up,” Monteith said. “I definitely make more money in the winter, so like everyone, we’re just tightening our belts. We’ll probably take one or two or three fewer trips this year.”
Even with stable, successful jobs, the couple’s ability to stay depends on whether Jackson’s booming tourism industry can survive inflation. Claassen runs her own events company, and is putting on 21 weddings this year, plus a handful of corporate events. But even in a place like Jackson, Claassen said, bookings depend on hotel or airline prices not escalating out of control – and on people wanting to keep coming back and spend.
Plus, the rising cost of living is driving more workers out of local tourism and hospitality jobs, Monteith said.
“Jackson, the way it’s defined, needs tourism, and I personally love showing off my backyard to people, and I want them to have a great time,” Monteith said. “On the other side, you have friends working in the hotel and restaurant industry, and they’re not all fully staffed, so they may have to work extra shifts. And that means they may not get to enjoy the mountain life that they moved out here for.”