Can Unions Save Ski Patrollers?
Ski patrol has become an increasingly unsustainable career path. Now unions are popping up across the country to try and change that.
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This winter marks Ryan Anderson’s ninth year ski patrolling at Colorado’s Breckenridge Resort. But when the lifts started spinning in late fall, he’d grown frustrated by certain aspects of the job. He just wanted to be treated like a professional, with sick leave—especially as a frontline worker during a pandemic—and ideally more robust benefits, too, after nearly a decade of serving the same company. Most important, he wanted better compensation so he could afford to live where he works—a ski town where median housing prices have increased 37.8 percent in the past year.
“They say, ‘Your benefits are being up on this beautiful ridge,’” Anderson says. “Yeah, sure, but I woke up early to be here in a 40-mile-an-hour breeze with 20 pounds of explosives on my back, and I can’t take that ridge to the bank and pay a mortgage.”
This is why Anderson, along with many other ski patrollers across the country, recently formed a labor union, turning to collective bargaining to try and make theirs a sustainable career. Breckenridge’s ski-patrol union reached a contract agreement in December with the mountain’s ownership, Vail Resorts, which addressed many of Anderson’s concerns. Meanwhile, after 51 rounds of negotiation meetings, Utah’s Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association (PCPSPA) union, which was founded over 20 years ago, just agreed on a new contract with Vail Resorts as well, while in December, patrollers at Washington’s Vail-owned Stevens Pass voted on a union contract that was two years in the making. And last season, patrollers at Montana’s Boyne-owned Big Sky Resort voted to unionize.
Although Vail’s leadership has made it clear that they don’t think unionization is the best path forward for patrollers, Sara Olson, vice president of communications for Vail Resorts, told Outside, “While we believe the most effective relationship is a direct relationship with the company, we respect the right of our employees to choose to be represented by a union and comply with the rules and regulations involved. Regardless of if they are unionized or not, we are committed to treating all of our employees fairly and with respect, and we are always listening to their concerns equally.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ski patrollers make an average of $13 an hour and are in the bottom 3 percent of wages nationally. (Many other mountain-town jobs, like food services, transportation, and childcare, also rank at the very bottom.) Know what they score higher on than almost any other profession? Workplace injuries, according to a 2017 report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Patrolling is dangerous and hard on the body, and moving up the employment hierarchy takes training and expertise in snow science and emergency medicine. But patrollers say their compensation doesn’t reflect their skill or assumed risk. Many patrol jobs require an EMT certification, but median pay for an emergency medical technician is significantly higher than that of a patroller: $17.62, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There is this conception of us being seasonal ski bums who just think it’s fun to throw bombs,” says Anderson, who is a member of the Breckenridge ski-patrol union’s interim bargaining committee. That stereotype, he says, makes it hard to advocate for higher wages or better benefits. One downside of working a “dream job” is that workers are often told they’re replaceable because their jobs are desirable. But Anderson says this isn’t true: familiarity with avalanche terrain, high-angle rescues, and the tricky signs of on-mountain injuries come with time and hard-earned experience.
Lee Moriarty, a patroller who is one of two business managers for the PCPSPA, agrees. “Our job is all about safety, and the easiest way to do that is to have institutional knowledge,” she says. “We need patrollers to be around for a long time, so we need space for retention at a livable wage.”
Meanwhile, living in a ski town just keeps getting more expensive, compounding the issue. Moriarty says the cost of living in Park City has risen dramatically in the past year, as it has over much of the Wasatch Front, where rent has increased by around 18 percent. “We want to be able to afford rent in Park City, to go to the doctor, and to buy food,” she says.
That’s why the PCPSPA worked so hard to renegotiate a contract with Vail Resorts. Vail raised the minimum wage for employees at 14 of its resorts to $15 last year and increased pay for certain advanced and specialized roles. But Moriarty claims the company lost almost a quarter of its patrollers this season because that wage bump didn’t reflect the recent increase in living costs. The PCPSPA reached a tentative three-year agreement with Vail on January 12 after months of advocating for a $2-per-hour raise and a clear payment structure that rewards advanced training and helps negate gender and other biases. Before last week’s bargaining meeting, more than 90 percent of Park City patrollers authorized a strike if they couldn’t come to an agreement with Vail. Among other benefits, the new contract increases the average hourly wage of a patroller at Park City from $15.38 to $19.
In a statement to Outside, Vail said: “A lot of time, energy and effort went into reaching this new agreement…. We appreciate the engagement from the union’s bargaining team and want to reiterate our tremendous respect and admiration for our patrollers.”
Patrollers aren’t alone in looking to unions to advocate for themselves. Inequality in the U.S. is bad and getting worse, and the people caught in the squeeze are often earning hourly or seasonal wages. From Amazon to the Audubon Society, workers are organizing. The PRO Act, a bill that expands protections around organizing and collective bargaining, is awaiting consideration by the Senate, and according to a September Gallup poll, unions are currently enjoying an approval rating of 68 percent, the highest since 1965.
This isn’t the first time ski patrollers have turned to unions, either: in Colorado, Aspen’s four resorts have had a union since 1986, and waves of unionization have come and gone at U.S. ski resorts since then. Along with Breckenridge and Big Sky, workers at Crested Butte, Steamboat, Telluride, Park City, and Stevens Pass are all currently part of the United Professional Ski Patrols of America Local 7781 union, the umbrella union for ski patrols.
But in the past couple of years, with the skyrocketing cost of living and an ever-increasing number of resorts owned and managed by big companies like Vail and Alterra, a new flurry of union activity has burgeoned among ski patrols. Patrollers at Breckenridge voted to unionize last spring; the margin of victory was a single ballot. At Keystone, another nearby Vail-owned resort, patrollers voted not to unionize by a margin of six. Big Sky Ski Patrol unionized in May, after nearly seven years of discussion.
By banding together in a union, workers can explicitly ask resort management for what they want and the resorts must engage with them. This process can ensure that benefits are consistent, and as a group they can fight stereotypes and assumptions that might prevent workers from getting higher wages. “The reason that we took this approach is that our leadership—as much as we enjoy working with them—they’re beholden to their bosses, a multibillion dollar corporation,” says Anderson. “As much as an individual employee can advocate for themselves, we think it’s most effective to be a collective voice.”
At other ski areas, unions are talking about year-round health care, mental health services, and support during the pandemic, including paid sick days. “They’re legally bound to sit down and bargain over these things,” says Garry Jordan, Local 7781’s ski-patrol rep. “There’s no guarantee we can effect a change, but we can guarantee a legally recognized contract conversation.”
Unionizing isn’t guaranteed to get workers what they want, and it isn’t easy. Finding a collective voice is hard, and the ski-patrol industry has had a variable history with unionization. Previous unions at Keystone and Breckenridge broke up in the early aughts, and their current negotiations have been complicated. Patrollers at unionized resorts have told me that they’ve felt pressured to join and pay dues, which are 1.3 percent of base pay (about $30 a month for a patroller working 40 hours a week). They also worry that they will be penalized by the resort.
It appeared that might happen last spring, when Vail initially said that unionized workers at Park City weren’t eligible for a year-end bonus, right after it told investors it had $1.4 billion in cash. Vail told patrollers in a letter that giving them the bonus would violate federal labor laws, but Garry Jordan says that’s false. “The law does say that it has to be negotiated, but it’s never illegal to give people more money,” he says. After discussions, unionized patrollers did receive the bonus at the same time as nonunionized employees. Moriarty says union membership has increased as negotiations have gone on, because patrollers have seen the benefits. Now nearly 90 percent of Park City’s patrollers are part of the union.
Vail, for its part, has shown that it is willing to find some amount of middle ground with ski-patrol unions this season. During the fall it launched an initiative for wage growth and professional development for patrollers, along with benefits like COVID-emergency sick leave and paid time off for full-time seasonal employees. “We believe all of these significant investments illustrate how committed Vail Resorts is to our patrollers,” Tim Baker, vice president of Vail Resorts’ mountain division, told Outside. “It has been a privilege to work alongside our patrollers over the last couple of years to examine how we can elevate the patrollers’ experience.”
Going into the new season, Ryan Dineen, another Breckenridge patroller who is part of the unionization effort, says the Breckenridge ski-patrol union is hopeful that it’s part of a growing push for workers’ rights in mountain towns and beyond. “We’re asking for what it takes, at the very base level, to not even thrive but just sustain yourself in this town,” he says. “We are a microcosm of a much larger problem.”