When the Obama administration, in 2014, mandated that all guides operating on federal land be paid $10.10 per hour—a nearly $3 bump—plus overtime, the outfitting industry was contemplating its demise. “Implementation of this would basically put me out of business,” an owner of a Wyoming backpacking company told a House subcommittee in 2015. The logic was pretty simple: Once overtime pay was factored in, wages for guides were going to double or triple with the new requirements, and outfitters wouldn’t be able to handle the cost. As you may have noticed, there wasn’t a mass die-off of fishing, hunting, and rafting companies over the past four years.
Even so, last week President Donald Trump signed an executive order that reversed the minimum wage requirements for guides; in doing so, he actually cleared up some regulatory confusion. The reason? Based on multiple interviews with outfitters and guiding associations, it seems that pretty much nobody complied with the rule anyway.
The outfitters I interviewed called Obama’s policy a hasty decision that lacked follow-through. (The business owners I interviewed spoke only on condition of anonymity due to their noncompliance with regulations.) The administration provided little, if any, guidance on how companies should treat these matters, so they determined how to pay guides under the new rules on a case-by-case basis.
Other public land concessionaires, like those working in lodging or food services, must still meet minimum wage requirements (now at $10.35). But after Trump’s order, the increase won’t apply to the folks who lead rafting trips down Grand Canyon or backpacking tours in Yellowstone. If you think of what their average day looks like, it begins to make more sense. Unlike other service industry employees swept up by the minimum wage requirements, guides work odd hours that are challenging to regulate. Does a guide’s day end when she finishes setting up camp? When she goes to sleep? Or is she on the clock 24 hours?
“I don’t know of anybody who pays an hourly wage,” says John Dillon, executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association. “We haven’t done that in our industry’s history, I’m told, ever. All of these multiday trips are generally paid per trip or per day.”
The industry struggled with Obama’s order for many reasons, one of them being that the wage requirements arrived in fits. They were supposed be implemented smoothly, but after Congress issued a short-term exemption in a 2016 appropriations bill, which gave outfitters a free pass, the same exemption wasn’t included in 2017. So, all of a sudden, this year the National Park Service contracts began requiring compliance, which triggered a dozen western lawmakers—including Republican representatives Doug LaMalfa from California and Rob Bishop from Utah—to ask Trump for a permanent exemption in February. “While most federal agencies are not implementing the provision into contracts with small outfitter and guides,” the legislators wrote, “the National Park Service is.”
The NPS requirements went into effect in December, well after companies had booked trips. “Many had already sold out at the previous wage range,” says David Brown, vice president of government affairs for the America Outdoors Association. “So they couldn’t pass those costs on.”
Another reason the wage increase flopped, outfitters told me, was because there was no enforcement. “Everybody has struggled to be 100 percent compliant,” the Arizona outfitter says. Some firms continued business as usual, while others got creative with their accounting. The owner of a Utah company says he pays guides a monthly salary to avoid the overtime. “It’s hourly on paper—we just make it work.”
“My personal politics are more in line with the previous administration than this one,” an Arizona outfitter tells me, “but this is a good thing.”
Guides won’t necessarily be getting a pay cut after Trump’s rule, though. The Arizona outfitter told me that in an attempt to stay aboveboard, he started paying his staff an hourly wage. It led to a pay raise for most employees, especially entry-level workers who started at $10.50 an hour, higher than Arizona’s minimum. But he said most multiday guides understand they probably won’t be getting paid full overtime rates. So, in reality, Trump’s exemption won’t change much. Mostly it will eliminate the need for outfitters to get creative with their accounting, and it also allows outfitters to more clearly—and legally—negotiate wages with their guides.