ski patrollers in action
from left, Daniel Milchev/Getty; Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty
ski patrollers in action
We’ve long accepted that ski resorts pay the low wages they do by supplementing employees with a dreamy lifestyle. But as housing prices in mountain communities have skyrocketed, workers say this barter is outdated. (Photos: from left, Daniel Milchev/Getty; Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty)

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.

On a sunny morning this February at Park City, I stepped into a gondola with three male skiers, a twentysomething and two middle-aged guys. (Before I began working on this story, in the fall, Vail comped me a media Epic Pass. I didn’t use it while reporting this piece and instead paid $217 for a lift ticket.)

“I was thinking about working here on the mountain next year,” said the twentysomething as we ascended.

“You could hook up with these guys, ski patrollers,” one of the others replied in a New Jersey accent as he pointed to a group of ski instructors. “Make a little money to pay the bills, buy a little booze. Not bad, right?”

The patroller’s union voted to accept the new contract by just 51 percent. Tommy got a good-sized raise, to $22 an hour, and now made a living wage for one of two working parents with two kids. But he worried that inflation would catch right up. (Indeed, his living wage hit $23.69 this summer.) Even meeting that threshold means he can only just cover basic needs like food, shelter, transportation, and health care—there’s no cushion for savings, seasonality, or unforeseen expenses, like when Tommy’s white 2008 Toyota Tundra, which he purchased with 120,000 miles on it in 2018, breaks down, as it often does.

We’ve long accepted that ski resorts—and other outdoor employers, like mountain and river outfitters—pay the low wages they do by supplementing employees with a dreamy lifestyle. But as housing prices in mountain communities have skyrocketed, workers say this barter is outdated. “The sentiment of getting paid in fun is a thing of the past,” says Eric Andersen, a Park City patroller and member of the union’s negotiating team. Patrollers in particular have responded to the consolidation of the ski industry and the rising cost of living in resort towns by unionizing to demand better wages: since 2019, patrols at Breckenridge and Purgatory in Colorado, Stevens Pass in Washington, and Big Sky in Montana have all organized, following in the footsteps of unionized Colorado patrols like Aspen, Crested Butte, Steamboat, and Telluride.

I met Tommy at the patrol shack where he and his team were stationed for a two-week rotation. Terrain maps, backboards, bamboo poles, and other odds and ends hung on the wood-paneled walls; in a corner, a gas stove heated the room and the guys’ lunches, which were placed directly on the hot metal grill. (Like most patrols, this one is male dominated, at a ratio of 70/30.) On a whiteboard, someone had scrawled current conditions: “Snow is super fast/compact but turning is for the weak so don’t.”

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. Noting a recent $118 million acquisition by Vail, he said, “It’s like, what about the people who make all this possible?”

It was a rare quiet day, but the team didn’t fully relax, since they knew a call could come at any moment. From time to time, patrollers left to run errands or practice avalanche-beacon search drills. Otherwise, they alternated between bouts of brainy banter and comfortable silence. A baby-faced patroller named Ryan, who had a wisp of a blond mustache, read a self-help book about how to have a growth mindset.

Patrollers are known for their close bonds and camaraderie; core to the profession is the idea that “patrol is family.” Garry Jordan, the Park City patrol union’s representative at the Communication Workers of America, told me that when the CWA brings in new unions in other industries, it teaches them the union concept of solidarity. But “the thing about ski patrol is, the union didn’t have to teach them,” he said. “They know that if they don’t look out for each other, they die.”

All of the guys on Tommy’s team, except for one, lived outside Park City, where the average home value rose 40 percent year over year to $1.5 million in February. Many of the patrollers reside in Salt Lake City, an option they acknowledge they are fortunate to have. But it also involves a 30-minute commute that can become twice as long when it snows, and requires them to own snow-capable vehicles and pay for the fuel such rigs guzzle. At the time, Tommy spent roughly $70 to $80 a week in gas, a figure that, depending on price fluctuations, will likely be higher this season.

On a typical day, patrol clocks in at 7:30 A.M. Before guests arrive, they head out on their opening runs, marking hazards, roping off terrain, and skiing or walking trails with questionable coverage to see if they are safe to open. Once the chairs are spinning, calls start coming in. They can be bizarre, like the time a snowboarder got mowed down by a moose near the bottom of a lift. More often they’re wrecks, like last week when an older skier flew off a trail, down a steep embankment with tight trees, and had to be belayed out on a backboard by several patrollers.

The Outdoor Emergency Care certification all Park City patrollers must obtain takes about 100 hours to complete, and while it focuses more on outdoor medical issues like hypothermia or altitude sickness than an EMT program does, ultimately a patroller’s job as a first responder is similar to that of an EMT: to “package” and transport injured patients. (Unfortunately, neither profession pays particularly well—the median wage for EMTs and paramedics in the U.S. was $17.76 an hour in 2021.) One of the more stressful aspects of being a rookie patroller, said union co-business manager and fourth-year patroller Lee Moriarty, is not knowing how serious the injury is that you might be skiing down to. During her rookie year, she assisted on a call where a man was coding, meaning he didn’t have a heartbeat. Fellow patrollers performed CPR until the fire department arrived and took over, and the man survived. When I said it sounded like her colleagues saved his life, Moriarty hedged. “I hope so,” she said. Or maybe he got lucky, she proposed, because he coded in an area where people could respond quickly.

This self-effacing attitude seems to be culturally ingrained within patrol, where many are reluctant to extol successful rescues. But even if they don’t like to talk about it, ski patrollers save lives. From July 2019 to March 2022, the National Ski Patrol, the governing body that oversees training and certification for most U.S. patrols, issued 126 purple merit stars to patrollers nationwide. Each of these represented an emergency scenario, verified by a medical doctor, in which a patient would have died without on-mountain intervention.

But sometimes there’s nothing anyone can do. When avalanche accidents occur in the backcountry outside Park City’s boundaries, patrollers often assist with search and rescue. Years ago a man was buried after he and his partner left the resort to ski out of bounds. While his colleagues searched for the missing man, Tommy escorted the survivor, who was distraught, to the base of the mountain. The snowy walk was a long ten minutes. “I knew that their ski partner was not going to be recovered alive,” he remembers now. But obviously, he couldn’t say that at the time.

He was in the LZ, the landing zone, when a helicopter flew in with the body. He watched as rescuers moved it into the coroner’s van. “I probably will never have a day I don’t think about that,” he said.

A ski patroller’s day completely changes when it storms. That’s when there’s avalanche mitigation to do, and with Park City Mountain comprising 7,300 skiable acres, that’s a big job. (In 2015, Vail combined Park City with Canyons Resort, creating the largest ski area in the U.S.) On the Canyons side alone, where Tommy works, there are about 150 avalanche paths that could slide and kill skiers if uncontrolled. Preventing these deaths can be deadly in itself: a 2014 report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the University of Calgary suggests that avalanche work could be among the ten most dangerous occupations in the country, after jobs like logging and construction.

On avalanche-control days, Tommy and his colleagues clock in between 3:30 and 5:30 A.M., often after making a harrowing, whiteout drive through Parleys Canyon, past snowplows and spun-out cars. In the creeping light of dawn, they venture in pairs into avalanche terrain, carrying shovels, probes, and transceivers in case one of them gets buried.

They also carry explosives. The various slide paths are grouped into what patrollers call routes, each of which is mapped with safe spots for personnel and shot placement for bombs. Under the watchful eye of their partner, a patroller like Tommy will ski across an avalanche-prone slope from one safe spot to another using a method called ski cutting, in which they traverse quickly, pushing down hard to test the slope and break the tension in the snowpack. That way, if a slide does occur, it releases below the cut. Once the first patroller reaches the safe spot, they’ll wave to their partner, who uses the protection of the first cut to proceed toward the same spot, laying another cut below the first. The pair zigzags down the slope like this, laying explosives onto known trouble spots.

The bombs they use are two-pound cylinders called cast boosters. On some routes, patrollers use ropes to suspend charges a few feet above the slope in a system called a tram; more often they throw them by hand. Tommy is methodical about this aspect of the job. He always keeps his igniter in the same pocket, his crimpers in the same spot, calling out each move to his partner: “Crimping… seated… safety… fire… got smoke.” Boom.

Back in the patrol shack, as Tommy and sixth-year patroller James Shaw talked me through the mitigation process, I was finding it difficult to wrap my head around ski cutting. “So you’re telling me you just ski across an avalanche slope?” I raised my eyebrows. They nodded. “Is it ever spooky?”

“Oh yeah,” said one.

“Totally,” said the other.

Tommy’s never gone for a ride, as patrollers call it when they get caught up in a slide, but, he said, “I’ve been ski-cutting across a slope and had the whole slope around me, from 100 feet away, sink to the ground three or four inches” with a thunderous whumpf. He called it a “bone-chilling” feeling.

Shaw has seen a slide rip out from beneath a partner’s ski when he stopped after a ski cut. It broke two feet deep and ran for a hundred yards or more. “His upper ski was still on the unbroken snow,” he said.

The dangers and complexities of avalanche mitigation are one reason the union says low wages are an issue of public safety. Controlling for avalanche danger is not just about knowing how to handle bombs or travel through avalanche terrain; it’s about understanding the mountain’s peculiarities and its weather patterns, knowledge that can only be gained from years of experience. The most revered patrollers are the veterans on the resort’s snow-safety team, comprising 15 men and women, some of whom have been on patrol for more than 20 years. “You lose those people and you lose a lot of potentially lifesaving knowledge,” said Tommy.

According to the union, after the 2020–21 season, several patrollers with over a decade of experience left Park City, including two members of snow safety. “That was easily in excess of 100 years of experience flowing out of the department,” says union president Brian Spieker. The union claims that wage stagnation is one reason for the turnover. In an email to Outside this fall, Vail Resorts director of corporate communications Jamie Alvarez said the company was “very pleased” with Park City staff retention rates last season, and that patrol is one of Vail’s best staffed departments company-wide. “Safety is our top priority and we are diligent to ensure we have the patrollers needed to safely operate our resorts,” she said, pointing to a wage scale for patrollers that increases based on skills, certifications, and time in the role. But Spieker, who has been patrolling at Park City for 17 years, says he’s observed the general trend of patrol becoming younger and less experienced. “When I started, the average tenure here was ten years,” he says. Now he estimates it’s between three and five. “I don’t think you can build a competent avalanche worker inside of five years.”

Research across industries, from air travel to trucking to nursing, shows that increasing wages for lower-income workers leads to lower turnover and better safety, says Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, who studies the societal impacts of low-wage work. “While no one has studied ski patrol specifically,” he says, “there’s good evidence from a range of industries that when workers stay longer at the job, they gain a set of skills and knowledge that leads to fewer errors and fewer accidents.”

This line of reasoning is why one of the union’s goals is to keep ski patrol a viable long-term career, like teaching or firefighting. “The longer you stick around,” Tommy says, “the more you realize this is a real job.”

“Have you ever thought about having kids?” Tommy asked as we walked down to the employee parking lot. “’Cause this’ll take a ding out of that idea.”

He was joking—maybe. It was five o’clock, and work was done for the day. We were headed to his house, where he warned that chaos was about to ensue. I asked whether he still had energy for an interview. “Oh yeah,” he said, his eyes red with fatigue. “It doesn’t really matter how much energy I have at the end of the day.”

Patrolling is hard on family life. Tommy is up and out the door before his wife and kids wake up, and he can return as late as 6:30 in the evening. He tries to be fully present for the couple hours he has with them—running the bath for the baby, preparing dinner for the toddler—but he often feels exhausted after a day of physical work.

At his place, a modest, warmly lit, three-bedroom bungalow in the Sugarhouse neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Tommy watched his daughter while his wife, Burch, cooked enchiladas and Burch’s mother, who was visiting, bounced the baby on her lap. Tommy and Burch bought the house in 2015, before prices blew up, thanks in part to Tommy’s savings from his oil and gas job and some help from her parents. Tommy has long worked an additional job as a fly-fishing guide in the summer, and supporting a family on patrol wages means socking away roughly $3,000 from his guiding earnings to help carry him through the winter. Even then there are months in the fall when he and Burch go into what they call “the save cave,” eating ramen and driving as little as possible. (The kids, he assured me, always eat good, healthy food.) Perhaps this is why there aren’t many Park City patrollers who have children; Tommy says he’s among just a handful who do.

Studies show that, at lower ends of the income spectrum, wages have a direct effect on health, not just for workers but for their families, too. “Overall there’s very good evidence that improving wages and family incomes have positive effects on children’s health, adult mental health, children’s development and school performance, crime and recidivism—across a whole host of areas,” says UC Berkeley’s Ken Jacobs. “And specifically, several studies have found that an increase in the minimum wage reduces suicide.” Further, he adds, family financial stress is felt more acutely in places where cost of living is high or rapidly increasing.

We’ve long accepted that ski resorts pay the low wages they do by supplementing employees with a dreamy lifestyle. But as housing prices in mountain communities have skyrocketed, workers say this barter is outdated. “The sentiment of getting paid in fun is a thing of the past,” says Eric Andersen, a Park City patroller.

This connection between income and mental health is particularly pertinent in ski towns, which besides seeing rapid cost-of-living increases can also see suicide rates two to three times the national average. Workers in mountain communities (including Park City) have consistently told researcher Liliana Tenney, of the University of Colorado Anschutz Behavioral Health Center, that higher wages and better benefits would lead them to make healthier decisions and improve their overall quality of life. But when Tenney interviewed local employers about how they could support employee well-being, she says, “not once did it come up that they should be paying people more.”

A ski resort isn’t just any local employer, either—it’s often the biggest game in town. In Summit County, Utah, for example, the two largest employers are Park City and Deer Valley Resort, which is owned by Alterra Mountain Corporation. In Pitkin County, Colorado, the number one employer is Aspen Snowmass; in Teton County, Wyoming, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is number two. In other words, the wages paid by a ski resort are likely to affect more workers—and their health and well-being, as well as that of their family’s—than wages paid by almost any other business in town. (On the flip side, the size of most ski corporations means that they can provide benefits smaller employers can’t; Vail, for example, offers health insurance, a matching 401(k), and wellness benefits like six free counseling sessions a year for employees and their dependents.)

As we wrapped up our evening, Tommy told me that he knows he could make more money doing something else. But he loves patrolling. He enjoys nerding out on snow science, he finds it fulfilling to help hurt skiers who would otherwise be helpless, and most of all he loves the people he works with. That was why he was trying to stay on board. “But,” he said, “it’s definitely a challenge.”

Patrollers picketing on Main Street on December 4, 2021
Patrollers picketing on Main Street on December 4, 2021 (Willie Maahs)

Patrollers don’t look back when they’re skiing. So if you want to follow one around the mountain, you’d better keep up.

It’s a task made only slightly easier when the patroller is towing a 50-pound toboggan behind him with a 130-ish-pound human in it. I watched as eighth-year patroller Eric Andersen deftly maneuvered the sled down the icy blue groomer, edging and arcing to keep his tall, lanky body directly below the sled. Experienced patrollers like Andersen can even juke a sled down a bump run.

Andersen pulled over where a road met the slope, and a twentysomething, ponytailed skier clambered out sheepishly. Her eighties-era binding had stopped securing her ski at the top of the run, and Andersen spent several minutes with a screwdriver trying to fix it, to no avail. Instead, he gave her a ride down the mountain.

It was a Saturday, about noon, and already I’d watched patrol assess a snowboarder with a possibly broken wrist, retrieve and return a child found lost and crying on the hill, and now play ski tech and courtesy shuttle.

Andersen was part of the union’s negotiating team, and he sat across the (mostly virtual) table from Vail over the 17 months and 50 meetings it took to settle on a contract. He still works for Park City, and can’t disparage his employer. But members of the union’s bargaining team who stopped working for Vail after the negotiations tell me that the process was frustrating and contentious.

Emails obtained by Outside show that the union first attempted to initiate discussions in January of 2020, but Vail wouldn’t meet until June. Then, three months into the pandemic, and while Utah’s governor was still advising businesses to conduct meetings remotely, the company insisted upon in-person negotiations. Vail eventually agreed to meet virtually in late July 2020, but once meetings began in August, union negotiators said talks often devolved into drawn-out debates over seemingly trivial issues, like the process for retiring avalanche rescue dogs. Patrollers also said that Vail often left them waiting hours for responses or counterproposals—sometimes they could wait until 5 P.M., “when we heard it was their hard stop,” said former Park City patroller and union negotiator Mark Russell. This was particularly frustrating, Russell said, because meetings initially took place during weekday business hours and patrollers had to take unpaid time off to attend. (The patrollers eventually pushed for evening sessions, which they said were more productive.) As to the union’s impression that Vail didn’t have decision-makers at the table, Vail executive vice president of mountain operations Bill Rock told me, “The union has to take the contract to a vote of their members, too. I think the union committee was bargaining in good faith, and I know we were bargaining in good faith. There’s always procedures on both sides in a collective-bargaining situation.”

During a lift ride back to the shack, we saw two of Andersen’s teammates on the slope below, tending to a young male skier in a red jacket who was sitting on the snow with his skis lying beside him. One of the patrollers was wrapping the skier’s right knee in an orange splint. Andersen’s radio crackled. Dispatch wanted to know if they could get pickup for three medical calls at once; on the other side of the mountain, patrollers were coordinating an emergency helicopter flight. “The world is blowing up right now,” he said.

I left Andersen around 3 P.M., and my final ski down ended up being from a lift called Tombstone. As I unloaded from the chair, I passed the patrol shack. Skis were propped outside; the patrollers were likely doling out assignments for end-of-day sweeps. Once the lift stopped turning, they’d fan out across the mountain, skiing from one side of the runs to the other, searching for hurt or lost skiers.

It hadn’t snowed significantly in Park City for five weeks, and in the late afternoon shade, most of the trail down was a smooth, white, perilous ribbon. Even in the slough on the sides, loose rocks clacked disconcertingly against my edges. A common ski-area disclaimer popped to mind: Skiing is an inherently dangerous sport. I thought of something Tommy had said: “If you were to break your leg on a ski mountain and no one was there to help you, you would die. You’d freeze to death. No questions asked.”

I skittered the rest of the way down to the base area. At the top of the icy final pitch, I could see the road snaking into town. An ambulance, lights flashing, was racing toward the mountain.

In the weeks before and after my visit to Park City, Vail was besieged by negative press and social media backlash. Its stock price had been sliding since early November, preceding the market’s overall decline by several weeks. The company faced two sets of class-action lawsuits claiming unfair labor practices and unpaid wages, brought by employees in California and Colorado. (Vail has settled the California suits for $13.1 million. The Colorado suits seek significantly greater damages, of over $100 million.) In early March, workers at Vail’s Whistler Blackcomb property—inspired in part by patrol negotiations at Park City and Stevens Pass—attempted, unsuccessfully, to organize a walkout for higher wages and monthly rent subsidies.

On March 14, Vail made an announcement: the company would pay a new minimum wage of $20 per hour across all of its North American properties and $21 per hour for patrollers and certain other positions. CEO Kirsten Lynch also pledged a $175 million annual incremental investment in workers, to include wage increases, additional HR hires, and employee housing.

“My first reaction was, That’s awesome?” said Mark Russell, the former Park City patroller and negotiator. “My second reaction was, Why did they fight us for so long for $15 and then raise it to $20? It made what we were fighting over seem really silly.”

“I wish we could say it was that simple,” Vail spokesperson Jamie Alvarez said when I posed a similar question during a conference call a few weeks later. Some East Coast employees would receive a $12-to-$13-an-hour increase with the new minimum wage, she told me, and deciding to make that level of investment across the company “takes time.” Under Lynch, who took over as CEO in November 2021, the company was trying to go in “a new direction” when it came to the employee experience, Alvarez said: “We’re trying to go in this direction of listening and learning.”

When pressed, Vail executive vice president Bill Rock, who was also on the call, said that the Park City negotiations and threatened walkouts at Whistler were “not really” a factor in the company’s decision to raise the minimum wage. “When we think about these things, we think about the whole enterprise of all our employees,” he said. Indeed, the four unionized patrols within Vail’s portfolio represent a small fraction of the company’s total workforce. But Tommy wondered if even the threat of further unionization may have motivated the decision. “Overall,” he told me when I phoned a few days after the announcement, the Park City patrollers felt “proud that we put up such a huge fight and now we’re seeing real change company-wide.”

In April, Vail began to make good on its commitments, announcing new housing projects at four resorts, including Park City. Despite being in the crosshairs of public opinion, the company, along with Aspen Snowmass, now likely leads the major U.S. ski conglomerates in terms of minimum wage. Alterra would not share specific wage information with Outside—each resort sets its own pay—but in August I was able to review job postings for the company’s Colorado resorts. (The state mandates that employers post wage ranges.) Alterra Mountain Division COO Mark Brownlie told me that management considers the local living wage, among several other factors, when setting pay. Still, job postings for roles like guest services, lift operators, and ski instructors at Alterra’s Steamboat ski area quote a starting wage of $18.50 an hour, below the $19.34 living wage in Routt County, where Steamboat is located. The shortfall was even bigger for Colorado employees of Powdr, which owns 11 resorts in North America: a lift-operator role for the upcoming season at Copper Mountain started at $17.50 an hour, compared with a $20.47 living wage; Eldora Mountain Resort, outside Boulder, was starting ski instructors at $16 an hour and snowcat operators at $18 an hour, compared with a $21.07 living wage.

On avalanche-control days, Tommy and his colleagues clock in between 3:30 and 5:30 A.M., often after making a harrowing whiteout drive through Parleys Canyon, past snowplows and spun-out cars. In the creeping light of dawn, they venture in pairs into avalanche terrain, carrying shovels, probes, and transceivers in case one of them gets buried.

In response to queries about these disparities, both Alterra and Powdr provided statements that expressed concern over the rising cost of living in resort communities. “Addressing those affordability challenges requires that companies have a seat at the table with local governments to work on potential solutions,” said Powdr spokesperson Stacey Hutchinson via email. Both companies said they consider compensation as a package that includes pay, health insurance, access to worker housing, and other benefits. Powdr specifically cited wellness benefits; Alterra cited “access to employee housing at below market rent and other subsidies,” and a new affordable childcare facility in Steamboat. Alongside “significant wage growth,” Alterra said its compensation package has enabled the company to “remain competitive in attracting and retaining staff.”

According to Danya Rumore, a researcher and founder of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region Initiative at the University of Utah, hybrid approaches that involve both pay raises and investments in worker housing are probably going to be the most pragmatic short-term solutions for ski-resort employers, given the soaring cost of living and housing shortages in mountain towns. Otherwise, she thinks the gap between real estate prices and traditional wages may be too big for employers to fill. “It’s math that doesn’t make sense,” she said. “We have people making $15 an hour, and we have people buying homes in Aspen that are $60 million.” Rumore suggested that ski resorts also use their influence to lobby state and local governments for laws that make it easier to develop housing.

But the resorts’ justification for paying less than a living wage in exchange for potential access to affordable housing has serious limitations. For one, not all employees get staff housing. And those who do often must share rooms, making it impractical for anyone with a family or a partner. A situation in which workers must rely on employers for housing may also exacerbate the lack of leverage they already experience when attempting to negotiate for higher wages or better working conditions.

Is it ever fair, or ethical, then, for a company to pay its employees less than a living wage—so little that they can’t afford to live outside subsidized company housing—especially if the company is one of the largest employers in town? Months ago I posed this question to Harvard Business School professor and corporate social responsibility expert Nien-he Hsieh. He told me that there are a few ways to assess whether a wage is fair. One is to think of it as a bargain struck between workers and a company, and to ask whether that bargain reflects the level of contribution workers are making to the overall value of the firm. When there aren’t many comparable employers available—as is often the case in a ski town—companies have a disproportionate amount of bargaining power, he said, and the wage may not reflect workers’ contributions fairly. Another approach, then, is to consider whether a wage allows workers to fulfill their basic needs. That’s the idea behind setting a minimum wage or a living wage, Hsieh explained—so that firms can’t use their bargaining power to pay less than what we’ve agreed, as a society, is the standard everyone deserves to live at.

But what is that standard? In Hsieh’s opinion, a truly fair wage may be one that allows employees to do more than just meet their basic needs. “I think about it more from the perspective of what does it mean to have a certain sense of dignity and economic security,” he said. In other words, perhaps firms owe their workers not just a wage that simply allows them to survive, but one that enables them to achieve some baseline quality of life. In this view, a fair wage might help them fulfill goals like supporting a family, building savings, or working toward homeownership.

All this remains up for debate, because as it currently stands, a living wage isn’t legally mandated like a minimum wage is. That means paying workers enough to cover even their basic needs is left to the discretion of individual employers. While some companies in the ski industry are moving in that direction, others have yet to do so.

In July, I caught up with Tommy in the heart of his fishing season, between multiday guiding trips. I asked whether his raise had helped relieve any financial stress. He laughed: “I mean, I’m not gonna be able to buy a house in Park City or anything like that, but I could afford to pay my cell-phone bill.” He had more problems with his truck this summer, he explained, which wiped out what he’d saved from the season: “You’re still like one vehicle repair away from having zero dollars in your bank account.”

Over the summer, the union worked with Vail to finalize how the new minimum wage, and resulting raises, would affect their latest contract. Conversations with Vail’s local representatives were positive, union president Brian Spieker told me. “I do get a sense that there exists a genuine recognition that there’s a problem, and an effort to address it and fix it,” he said.

In an email to Outside this fall, Vail’s Jamie Alvarez acknowledged that some employees “have not felt heard or supported” in the past, and that addressing dissatisfaction is one of the company’s “top priorities.” “We have been actively listening to our team and communities,” she wrote. “We have learned a lot and our actions have a direct connection to what we’ve heard matters most. We will continue to listen and learn, and make necessary changes to ensure the employee experience with Vail Resorts is a great one.”

By September, wages for the union were ironed out: lead specialists like Tommy would receive a new base wage of $24 an hour, or a 6 to 7 percent increase from last year’s wage, whichever was greater, plus additional skills-based incentives that the union had negotiated for all Park City patrollers back in January. Tommy estimated this might be an extra $1.75 to $2.75 an hour for him; Spieker said the amount would likely range from $2 to $5 an hour for most Park City patrollers.

All the same, Tommy has already begun to formulate an exit plan from patrolling. “I love it,” he said, “but it’s too much risk for the money.” He’ll return for the 2022–23 season, but he hopes to start transitioning to something more lucrative, like ski guiding. He and his wife know they’ll need to move at some point, as the kids get bigger. Even within a now cooling housing market, affording what they’ll need in Salt Lake City seems daunting.

When I visited him in February, Tommy told me about one of the houses he’d lived in when he was younger and single. He described it as “total dirtbag living”—shared with seven people, including a friend who slept on a camping mat on the balcony. Now he has more responsibilities—a family, a mortgage—but his hopes for the future are still simple. He wants his kids to have the kind of childhood he had: One with access to the outdoors, spent fishing and climbing and camping. One where he can take his daughter out on the river on the driftboat and his son can venture into the big mountains himself instead of just reading about them in mountaineering books. These things don’t seem like too much to hope for. But they feel like they’re getting harder and harder to have.

Update: This story was published in the November/December issue of Outside. Since it went to print, the lift-maintenance team at Park City Mountain announced plans to unionize. If it succeeds, it will become the first ski resort lift-maintenance team to unionize in the country. 

From November/December 2022 Lead Photos: from left, Daniel Milchev/Getty; Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty