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Perfect (Ice) Storm: Labor Issues, Heat Waves Creating Ice Shortages

A close-up of a dozen or so ice cubes. They are semi-translucent half-cylinders.
Alicia Griffin

If you’re trying to stock up on ice for a backyard get-together or river trip, you may have to plan ahead. Stores in states including Idaho, Colorado and Montana are having ice shortages and capping how many bags you can buy.

Some ice companies are doing just fine. But many others are struggling to keep up with demand.

When you call the national chain Reddy Ice, a robotic voice tells you, “Due to unprecedented demand and nationwide labor shortages, you may experience longer than average hold and delivery times.”

Andy Nye manages The Ice House’s Bozeman, Montana, location. He said people moving into the area, visitors traveling through and the heat wave have caused a definite spike in demand.

While Montana ice suppliers tend to help each other out, Nye said they can’t this year.

“All areas of Montana have been so hot that it’s rare that another ice supplier has any extra inventory to help the other ice supplier out,” he said. “It’s almost faster to call the ice manufacturer when possible to try and locate where there might be some ice.”

Part of the challenge is that ice vendors don’t deliver to every location every day, Nye said, and it’s hard to find truck drivers to carry out those deliveries.

“Bozeman is probably as tough a labor market as there is in the state, and we’re paying wages in excess of $20 an hour and overtime is on top of that,” he said.

Nye says there’s a larger labor issue at play, too. Restaurants are having a hard time ordering their own ice machines because manufacturers also don’t have enough employees. So they have to turn to ice companies and bagged ice, competing with everyone else.

Michael Bickelhaupt owns Colorado Ice Works near Denver. He’s seen the shortages affect businesses around the entire state. He’s even been ordering ice from Utah to help meet demand, but he’s still turning customers away.

“I got a call last week from a very well-known large grocery chain that wanted us to start supplying to 22 locations around Colorado ASAP,” he said.

Bickelhaupt said the grocer was willing to break contracts if he could supply their stores, but he couldn’t accept the offer.

“Unfortunately, we’re all in the same boat, and even if I wanted to take that on, I can’t solidify bringing in another 80,000 pounds a week, and still have the costs be effective for them,” he said.

Businesses could try to buy new equipment or expand to keep up, but even if they could get a new ice machine or new employees, Bickelhaupt said demand always cools off in the winter.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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