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Ski patroller unions set to grow in Colorado’s consolidating resort industry

Ski patrollers at Keystone, Breckenridge and Big Sky plan votes to join six other ski area unions as labor advocates predict a revival of collective bargaining for resort workers

Another day at the office for Telluride ski patrollers Jason Rogers and Josh Sands as they conduct avy control on Palmyra Peak. (Brett Schreckengost, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The letter to ski patrollers landed a few days before Vail Resorts told investors it was sitting on $1.4 billion in cash. 

The company was not going to include unionized ski patrollers in the end-of-season bonus program, saying the extra cash — up $1,500 — would violate federal law governing labor contract negotiations with the patrollers. 

“It sucked hearing that,” said Stuart Griffin, a patroller at Crested Butte Mountain Resort who has worked under three different owners in the past 11 years. “We are out here busting our butts all season long and management has been singing our praises all season long and they are like ‘Here are 100 attaboys, but no money.’ Well attaboys don’t pay the bills.”

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Vail Resorts management said bonuses for unionized patrollers at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Stevens Pass in Washington and Park City Mountain Resort in Utah would require revising contracts with the unionized workers, which cannot be done without collective bargaining.

A few days after the company reported better-than-expected results for the start of the 2020-21 ski season — telling investors it had close to $2 billion in cash and credit on hand to possibly add to its collection of 37 ski areas — the company switched direction and offered revised contracts to unionized patrollers that included the end-of-season bonuses. 

“We would much prefer to have granted this bonus to them directly, as we did with all other employees, versus through a union negotiation, but respect their decision to have all compensation matters negotiated,” reads a statement from the company that followed Park City ski patrollers approving the temporary contract. (Alterra Mountain Co. also will be offering its workers an end-of-season bonus and the unionized patrollers at its Steamboat ski area are included in the offer, said company chief Rusty Gregory.)

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There was no reason for Vail Resorts to exclude unionized ski patrollers in the first place, said Joe Naunchik, a longtime Park City patroller. 

“The way they went about it was to create conflict with their unions,” Naunchik said. “They wanted to show patrollers at their other resorts that if you are in the union, you are not going to be treated as well.”

Telluride ski patrollers prepare to throw hand charges into fresh snow near Gold Hill. (Brett Schreckengost, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For several years, only a handful of resorts have had unionized patrollers: Steamboat, Telluride, Park City, Crested Butte and Stevens Pass, all under the umbrella of the Communication Workers of America union. Patrollers at Aspen Skiing Co.’s four Roaring Fork Valley ski areas are in a private union.

This month, the number of resorts with unionized patrollers could grow by three, as Keystone patrollers will vote and patrollers at Breckenridge and Montana’s Big Sky are planning to vote soon on unionization.

Patrollers at Keystone received ballots this month and must vote by March 29 on whether to form a union. Patrollers at Breckenridge last week filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a unionization vote. Patrollers at Big Sky filed for a vote in February. 

Beau Sibbing, a patroller at Breckenridge for the last seven years, moved out of town when his apartment rent climbed from $630 a month to $900. 

The cost of living in Summit County is a big issue for Breckenridge patrollers. Their pay has not kept pace with expenses while their workload has increased, with expanded terrain and increased visitation. 

“Our jobs have changed a lot in the last 10 years and it takes a lot of experience to do this right and that experience is gained through retention and sustainability,” Sibbing said. “We don’t have the sustainability right now to keep experienced patrollers and keep patrollers functioning at the high level that’s needed.”

Sibbing says it’s been a challenge to share with Vail Resorts upper management the challenges facing Breckenridge patrollers with increased responsibilities and stagnant pay. 

“We just don’t have these direct conversations with management with us being able to speak directly about what our job is really about right now,” Sibbing said. “I hope this is a step forward for everyone and we can have a new conversation.”

Northwest Colorado ranks No. 1 on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of rural areas with the largest number of ski patrollers. The roughly 750 patrollers in the region earn a mean wage of $16.43 an hour, or $34,170 a year. (That list includes lifeguards and other “protective service workers” at pools and beaches, of which there are few in northwest Colorado.)

Vail Resorts is urging Keystone’s patrollers to vote no.

Keystone patrol director Mike Daly — a Vail Resorts manager who would not be part of the union — said the outcome of a union vote may run counter to the intent of union organizers. Daly said patrollers at Keystone already have a seat at the table with management.

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“It will put an outsider in between their relationship with our company,” Daly said in a statement, in which he expressed fear of losing the “strong, direct relationship” he has with patrollers on his team. 

Daly said “many of our patrollers are confused and worried” about the union vote. 

“They were not a part of the initial organizing campaign and have openly shared, with me and others, that they do not want to be represented by a union,” Daly said in the statement. “Now, they are concerned if the union prevails, they won’t have a choice.”

Ski patrollers tend to an injured skier in Vail’s Game Creek Bowl on Dec. 11, 2020. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Patrollers from Utah’s Canyons unionized in 2000, but when Vail Resorts merged Park City and Canyons in 2015, the union dissolved and Park City patrollers created a new local. 

Vail Resorts’ contract with Park City ski patrollers expired last November after negotiations that started in August stalled. In January, patrollers at both Park City and Stevens Pass picketed Vail Resorts, arguing they needed better pay, benefits and improved working conditions. Patrollers at both resorts said a strike was on the table if contract negotiations broke down.

Park City patrollers worked without a contract until they reached a deal with Vail Resorts this month to reinstate the expired collective bargaining agreement through May 1, which makes the patrollers eligible for the end-of-season bonus. Crested Butte’s ski patrollers are set to vote soon on the modified contract that allows them to collect the end-of-season bonus from Vail Resorts.

But Park City patrollers this month filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging seven unfair labor practices by Vail Resorts. They have pushed for patrollers to begin accruing sick time the day they start working. Previously, patrollers had to work 1,500 hours, he said, before qualifying for paid sick leave. That’s just one impact of increasing consolidation in the resort industry and big companies, like Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co., which owns the union-represented Steamboat ski area, “not prioritizing their workers,” Naunchik said.   

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“The business model needs to change in the ski industry and unionization is the way to do that,” said Naunchik, who thinks unions would work for not just patrollers, but lift operators, groomers and maintenance workers. 

Vail Resorts has hired union-avoidance consultants with the Labor Relations Institute to work with resort employees considering a union vote. Those campaigns warn workers that unions would hinder open communications with managers.

“Although employees have the right to seek to organize, we fundamentally believe that the best way to foster an inclusive culture where employees feel engaged and empowered is to have a direct and open relationship, and not have an outside third-party in the middle of that relationship,” reads a statement by Vail Resorts spokeswoman Lindsay Hogan. 

Crested Butte ski patrollers have been unionized since the late 1970s, when they became one of the first and longest running patrol unions in the country. Aspen Skiing’s patrollers unionized in 1986. Patrollers at Crested Butte, Steamboat, Telluride, Stevens Pass and Park City form the United Professional Ski Patrols of America, a chapter of the Communications Workers of America.

Unions have not thrived in the ski industry. While there are unions for resort-town firefighters (Vail) and bus drivers (Aspen), there are few unions for resort workers. Ski instructors at Beaver Creek fell short of qualifying for a vote in 2016. Patrollers at Taos in 2015 voted down a union in a split 22-22 vote. 

Unions across the country have been in decline since the early 1980s. In 2020, 15.9 million wage and salary workers were represented by a union, which is 444,000 less than in 2019, a record-low year for union membership. The number of workers represented by unions today is about half what it was in the early 1980s. 

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But the tide could be changing. A high-profile effort to unionize more than 6,000 workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse has labor champions predicting “a domino effect” that could reinvigorate the nation’s labor movement. With the number of ski patrol unions possibly set to grow from six to nine in the next month, labor advocates are trumpeting collective bargaining among resort workers.

“Unions are the best chance we have for making this a career and not being treated like a second-class seasonal employee,” Naunchik said. 

He expects more patrollers will be lining up to form a union as resorts continue to consolidate under the growing banners of Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. 

“I think the momentum is swinging back our way,” he said. “People are tired of being exploited.” 

Telluride ski patroller Tony Daranyi said unionization “has been nothing but a win-win for both the patrol and the company.”

Patrollers unionized at Telluride in 2015, increasing wages and benefits for the workers who guard one of the steepest ski areas in the state. The union has reduced turnover, said Daranyi, who has patrolled at Telluride for 23 years. 

Telluride Ski Patrollers Jim Greene and Jason Rogers with their avalanche rescue dogs Jesse and Doris on a rescue exercise with Telluride Helitrax. (Brett Schreckengost, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The less turnover you have in your patrol units the more enhanced the safety of the mountain for both the guest and the ski patrol because you are dealing with more experience and you are not spending on training new patrollers every season,” said Daranyi, the president of the Telluride union. 

Daranyi said the patrollers’ contract with the resort, which expires at the end of the 2021-22 season, has given managers “a blueprint on how to resolve issues.”

“We are professionals and we need a lot of training and you need to bring credentials to the job that require constant training,” he said. “We are trying to create a professional career track for ski patrollers.”


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