How to Throw Bombs, Save Lives, and Raise a Family in Paradise on $22 an Hour
Last winter a ski-patrollers union in Park City, Utah, made headlines for its standoff against Vail Resorts over wages. The dust has since settled on negotiations, but the conversations they sparked about what ski-industry workers deserve may just be getting started.
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Tommy Pozzi started washing dishes at a diner for seven bucks an hour when he was 13 or 14. Like most teenagers, he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up. But both his parents worked the assembly line at the Buick factory in Flint, Michigan, and they told him and his younger sister not to do what they did. Don’t waste your life punching the clock at a job you hate, they said. Do something you’re passionate about.
Tommy was passionate about the mountains. He’d never seen the big ones out west, but as a young rock climber he read mountaineering books, and in the winter he opened the windows of his bedroom and did push-ups in the frigid air—“cold training,” he called it. After high school he went to the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, so he could ski and climb, but as a junior he ran out of tuition money. Over the next several years he worked various jobs in the oil and gas industry, which was good pay but a hard lifestyle that involved spending weeks on a rig. By the time he was 30, he had a serious girlfriend, and he could see a future in which the job made him a miserable husband and father. So he quit.
He had friends who were ski patrollers at Park City Mountain Resort, about 30 miles from his home in Salt Lake. In 2015, he started as a rookie patroller there, where he learned new skills constantly: how to make a ski slope safe from avalanches by throwing explosives onto it, how to transport an injured skier down a mountain in a toboggan. He loved the job, but the pay was dismal. His hourly wage increased from $10.25 an hour to $16 his third year, then stagnated. Money got particularly tight after he and his wife had their daughter in 2019. He sometimes had to carpool to work because he couldn’t afford the gas to get there.
Things became even more stressful during the pandemic. In January 2020, the union Tommy had joined—Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association, which represented the 180 or so patrollers and safety personnel on Park City Mountain—had begun negotiating a new contract with the ski area’s multibillion-dollar parent corporation, Vail Resorts, which at the time owned 37 properties worldwide, including Whistler Blackcomb and Vail Mountain. Tommy had hoped the union could bargain for a couple bucks’ an hour raise, which would help him cover his bills. But the negotiations didn’t start until August 2020, and then they dragged on through the following 2020–21 ski season, without resolution. Meanwhile, real estate prices soared in resort towns like Park City, as well as outdoorsy metro areas like Salt Lake City.
In the fall of 2021, Tommy’s son was born, and he began his seventh season as a patroller. That December, the union approached its 46th meeting and 16th month of negotiations with Vail amid a roiling national conversation about labor, as workers from Kellogg’s and Amazon staged strikes and unionization drives. Vail was taking a pummeling in the news due to long lift lines and terrain closures, both attributed to workforce shortages. The union’s talks attracted public support and media attention. When I met Tommy over Zoom a few weeks before Christmas, he told me about the nine-to-twelve-hour days that left his feet and back aching, the commute through Parleys Canyon that became “life or death” in the snow, and the dangers of his job. With regard to hand-throwing explosives, for example, “You can only throw it so far, and some people,” he said, joking, “are not that good at throwing.”
Despite his wry sense of humor, it was clear that Tommy was frustrated by the protracted talks between the union and Vail, which wanted to start first-year patrollers at what was then the company-wide minimum wage of $15 an hour, instead of the $16.70 the union was asking for. (According to shareholder reports, Vail appeared to be financially healthy, earning profit margins in its mountain operations, before depreciation and amortization, of 29.2 percent in 2020 and 32.6 percent in 2021.) At the time, as a seventh-year patroller who oversaw a team of four or five, Tommy made just $17.83 an hour, well below the $20.88 MIT then deemed a living wage to support a family of four in Salt Lake County. A two-week paycheck, after taxes, ranged from $850 to $1,300. His wife made a modest salary at a local nonprofit, and after their $1,200 mortgage, $1,800 a month for two kids in day care, groceries, diapers, a car payment, gas, and other bills, “it’s very much a paycheck-to-paycheck existence,” he told me.
Tommy pointed to the irony that his employee ski pass gave him access to any Vail resort, but he couldn’t afford a ski vacation: not the gas to get there, the hotel to stay in, or the ski lessons for his kids. “But all the people who can afford all that stuff, we’re there to help those guys and make sure that the mountain is open so that they can spend money there,” he said. Noting a recent $118 million acquisition by Vail of three resorts in Pennsylvania, he said, “It’s like, what about the people who make all this possible? It just feels like they think we’re expendable and we have no value.”
The second week of January 2022, the union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike ahead of the resort’s lucrative Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. A few days later, after a 15-hour meeting that ran into the early morning, the union and Vail arrived at a new contract, which was put to the patrollers for a vote. Tommy deliberated until the final hour before voting yes.