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When floods swept the upper Yellowstone River in June, Audra Feldhousen lost her home. It didn’t fill with water or wash downstream, like many other structures in the area. No, less than a week after the flood hit, Feldhousen was laid off by her employer, who was also her landlord.
Feldhousen had moved to Gardiner, Montana only two weeks earlier to take a cashier job at the local grocery store, the Gardiner Market. She paid $8 a day to rent a room in the market’s employee housing — “an old motel-type thing” next door. She liked her job and her employers and was excited to explore Yellowstone National Park, whose vast wildlands beckoned from just across the river to the south. But then, on June 12, floodwaters bit quarter-mile chunks out of Yellowstone’s northern road, indefinitely closing the park’s Gardiner entrance and cutting off the town from the tourists who annually pass through on their ways to and from the park — more than a million of them last year alone. The loss of tourists means the loss of customers for many Gardiner businesses, which means layoffs for many local workers.
“My employers asked to see me and I knew going up the stairs what was going to happen,” Feldhousen tells In These Times. “It was pretty tough on me when it was clear I wasn’t keeping my job. I keep having to throw everything I own in the back of my truck.”
“We did have to lay off two people, and it was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make,” says Rebecca Demaree, who owns the Gardiner Market with her husband. “We were just getting on our feet, then the floods happened and turned our world upside-down.” Now, according to Demaree, the market is doing “maybe 20%” of the business it would be doing in a normal summer. The owners told their laid off workers to take the time they needed to move out. “We didn’t want anyone to become homeless because of this,” Demaree says.
Feldhousen is one of the thousands of workers, many of them seasonal, who staff tourism businesses in and around the park. As the tourism industry has boomed in recent decades in rural western towns like Gardiner — year-round population around 900 — it has helped drive a housing crisis that forces many tourism workers to live in their cars or depend on their bosses for housing. This precarious arrangement means that these workers, who help generate more than $450 million in local economic value every year, were also among those hit hardest and fastest by the fallout from the floods.
It’s unclear how many workers lost their jobs or housing, but interviews with local tourism workers indicate that layoffs and housing losses were widespread. As many businesses cut back to their bare-bones, winter-season staff, Feldhousen says, “a lot of people just left.” Low on money and needing work, she drove south to Las Vegas to crash with family while she looks for another job, hopefully near Yellowstone.
While the Gardiner Market kept many of its employees, other businesses closed completely.
Before the flood, Chris Mackin worked as a porter for the Ridgeline, a Gardiner hotel owned by Delaware North, one of the biggest hospitality companies in the world. Days after the flood, which ripped up roadways, flooded houses and contaminated the town’s drinking water, Mackin says the company called an evening all-staff meeting with dinner provided.
“I knew what it was about,” says Mackin, who has a degree in history and a dry wit. “I knew it was going to be the last supper without resurrection.”
Delaware North, a privately-owned company with annual revenues exceeding $3.7 billion in 2019, told employees the company was closing the hotel indefinitely: Workers were all laid off or offered transfers to other company locations. While Mackin rents a place of his own, he says most of the staff lived in the company’s workforce housing and had 48 hours to get out of the dormitories.
Delaware North also holds federal contracts to operate tours and general stores inside the park. A worker at the general store in Mammoth Hot Springs, just south of Gardiner, told In These Times by email that he had towed an RV out from the Southern United States to work for Delaware North for the summer. The worker, who wished to remain anonymous to protect his job prospects, said that after the floods, the company closed the store, laid off the workers and kicked them out of the RV park where they were living.
Delaware North declined to be interviewed for this story, but Derek Zwickey, chief operating officer for the company’s parks and resorts division, provided an emailed statement: “Most associates of the Mammoth and Tower general stores and our lodging in Gardiner that closed accepted our offer to temporarily relocate and be reassigned to other company locations in the park and elsewhere.” The general stores, according to the statement, were scheduled to reopen on July 11 and “some associates who had relocated have returned to operate those stores.”
Mackin was among those who could not accept a transfer. After working in the area for years and living in workforce housing, he finally got hold of an affordable rental of his own.
“I don’t want to lose what I’ve got,” he says.
But Gardiner was a hard town to live in even before the floods.
“I was struggling along like anybody,” says Mackin, who worked a second job at a restaurant to cover his rent.
Since the floods, tourism industry boosters have been vocal about how loss of access to Yellowstone will harm tourism businesses in Park County. For example, a study commissioned by the Wild Livelihoods Business Coalition points out that tourism pours more than $236 million into Park County, Montana’s economy annually and that many tourism businesses, after a rough stretch due to pandemic-related closures, were looking forward to a booming summer season in 2022.
But in truth, even before the pandemic or the floods, this economy hasn’t worked well for everyone. A booming business in tourism, vacation rentals, second homes and real estate speculation has made some people fabulously wealthy. It has also helped drive local housing prices through the roof and out of reach of many local workers. As of 2021, landlords had raised the average rent in Park County to more than $1,500 a month, according to a housing needs assessment conducted by the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC), a local nonprofit that aims to identify and fill gaps in community needs like housing, food and heating. The average renter’s wage, meanwhile, was only $12.79 an hour. HRDC Housing Director Brian Guyer says that, in the year since the assessment was conducted, rents have only gone up.
“This flood lays bare a lot of problems that were already there,” says Guyer. “And, as usual, it’s the poor people who get hit the hardest.”
HRDC opened its shelter in Livingston to people driven from their homes by either the flood waters or their landlord-bosses. Guyer says shelter guests after the floods included residents of trailer parks, some of which are built in the Yellowstone River’s floodplain, and people who lost seasonal work in the park.
Even before the floods, though, HRDC had added two staff, says Guyer, to try “to deal with the spike in housing instability,” which he blames on the rising price of housing combined with the simultaneous withdrawal of state social services. For example, since the state closed the Livingston Mental Health Center in 2018, “there’s essentially nowhere for people experiencing mental health issues to go,” he says. “They land at the shelter.”
Guyer also blames businesses that don’t pay their workers enough to live here.
“We have people who are residing in the shelter who are working jobs,” he says. “HRDC picks up the tab for companies who are not paying their employees living wages.”
In some parts of the county, like Gardiner, the housing crisis is so bad that most of the workers who staff the town’s tourism businesses cannot afford to live there. Businesses have to buy workforce housing and import a seasonal underclass to do low wage jobs most locals can’t afford to do. The way the story is often told around here, businesses and their workers are on the same team, suffering or thriving together. But this story has a flaw, made obvious by the floods: While business owners will struggle through some tough seasons, they still own an asset on the doorstep of Yellowstone. Their workers have to leave town with everything they own in the back of a pickup truck. Montana’s government response reinforces this inequality. The state offered grants of up to $25,000 to tourism-dependent businesses impacted by the floods. Workers, many of whom lost their jobs and their homes in one stroke, were directed to apply for unemployment.
Ty Wheeler learned first-hand some of the problems with this precarious arrangement. In the winter of 2019, Wheeler was working as a snow coach guide for Delaware North in West Yellowstone, the park’s western entrance and a town with housing problems like those in Gardiner. Wheeler had managed to find housing of his own but says most of the guides lived in company-owned housing where they paid around $250 a month for a bunkbed. The company paid low wages — about $12 an hour plus tips — and the tour schedule was inconsistent.
“We had folks who were going to the food bank just to eat,” he tells In These Times. “I’m a veteran and this just goes against everything I believe in.”
So Wheeler, who grew up in an anti-union household, got together with five other guides to try to unionize. When the company found out, he says, they started firing the pro-union workers — the first two on Valentine’s Day of 2020.
“It was 16 degrees outside, and they had to move out of company housing,” Wheeler remembers. He was fired on Feb. 17, 2020 and the other three, he says, were starved of tours until they had to quit and look for other work.
According to Capital & Main, which broke the story, the group filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Boards, which ruled in a settlement that Delaware North should rehire the workers. The company has not done this, according to Wheeler, and the group is appealing.
Such precarity makes it hard for workers to organize for better conditions, says Wheeler.
If you depend on your boss for housing, “you have zero leverage,” he says. And high turnover among seasonal workers means “no one really has a chance to organize.”
As communities grapple with the aftermath of the flood, Guyer of HRDC urges them to also address these underlying inequalities exposed by the floodwaters.
“As we emerge from emergency response to long-term recovery,” Guyer says, “we need to think: What are we going to do to solve these bigger structural problems?”
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Joseph Bullington grew up in the Smith River watershed near White Sulphur Springs, Montana. He is the editor of Rural America In These Times.