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Epic crowds are colliding with epic labor shortages at ski areas

As a record number of pass holders arrive at Vail Resorts ski areas, a critical labor shortage and quarantined workers has delayed terrain openings and cut services, spurring a backlash among workers and local skiers.

The line was long on Dec. 28 at Vail's Chair 5. (Scott Willoughby, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Alex Kaufman thought it would be an amusing website. Something to poke fun at the largest resort operator in North America.  

So he bought epicliftlines.com for $12 last March, just as Vail Resorts announced a plan to slash the price of its popular Epic Pass by 20%.

“I thought ‘Oh, this could become a thing. This could be a situation,’” said Kaufman, who worked in the ski industry and at resorts in New England, Oregon and Colorado for 20 years. 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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It has become a situation. The EpicLiftLines Instagram page has grown into a nationwide vent for thousands of resort workers, most of them, he said, employed by Vail Resorts, which owns 34 ski areas in 14 states and Canada. The website gets thousands of clicks a day. The EpicLiftLines Instagram handle has more than 15,000 followers, even though Kaufman made only a handful of posts. Kaufman this fall started getting dozens of direct messages a day. Last week, he said the account was getting “a thousand every day.” 

Vail Resorts this year sold 2.1 million pre-purchased tickets and season passes. That’s a 76% increase over the 2019-20 season.

The Epic-passed hordes have collided with rippling effects of the pandemic that Vail Resorts did not predict when it launched its season-pass fire sale. A pandemic-triggered escalation of real estate prices has reduced the number of homes available to local workers. And without workers, resort community businesses are struggling. 

Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch, in a year-end pep talk for employees, described a “global talent shortage” in addition to the challenges from weather and the pandemic and said “no doubt we have had to overcome much this year.”

The labor crisis is indeed global. Health care, travel, restaurant and retail industries are limping as workers delay their return to the workplace or seek out better jobs. Employers across the country are struggling with post-peak-pandemic staffing, especially as workers test positive in this latest wave of the coronavirus. A report by the World Travel & Tourism Council estimated a labor shortfall of 700,000 workers in the tourism and travel industries in 2021. 

The problem is acute at ski resorts hosting holiday crowds right now. Resorts across the country are issuing pleas for patience and apologies for delayed openings

One patroller at Breckenridge, who cannot speak on record due to Vail Resorts policy on talking with media, said a lack of chairlift operators, lift mechanics and snowcat drivers has slowed the resort’s ability to open terrain. Sources at Vail, Beaver Creek, Crested Butte and Keystone, which has only 32 of 130 runs open, told The Colorado Sun the same thing. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which has been hammered with new snow this week, opened its East River chairlift on Wednesday, but that meant there were not enough lifties to keep the Teocalli lift running.

The slow start to the season gave resorts more time to get terrain ready, but recent storms have exposed the lack of help in lift operations. 

“It’s not that there are not enough talented people. There is a shortage of people who will get duped into working for $15 an hour,” the Breckenridge patroller said of Lynch’s assessment. “This is about communities running out of cheap labor. People are realizing they are worth more and their quality of life is worth more than an extra dime an hour or whatever.”

Few local businesses are not actively seeking employees along Main Street in Breckenridge on Saturday, October 16, 2021. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Kaufman, who this week handed control of the epicliftlines.com website and Instagram account to a new, anonymous administrator, said he was shocked and saddened by the tsunami of comments he’s received this month. 

“They are from staff, former staff, locals, guests. Everybody touched by Vail Resorts has started realizing they could trust this faceless Instagram handle and they started pouring their guts out,” Kaufman said. 

They told him how Vail Resorts gutted middle-management positions when it slashed spending during the pandemic. They showed how the company was stacking bunk beds into apartments, so four workers can share a room. They blasted the company’s new human resources app, which is replacing people and departments at all of the company’s 34 North American ski areas.

In the outpouring, Kaufman said, a theme emerged, especially at the company’s newly acquired resorts, which are lagging behind nearby resorts in Washington, Minnesota and New Hampshire when it comes to opening terrain.

When Vail Resorts acquires a new resort, they assimilate departments into the company’s headquarters in Broomfield. The career-types in each ski area’s finance, marketing and human resources departments are let go. They direct all hourly workers — there are tens of thousands of seasonal, hourly workers supporting Vail Resorts — to an app for all daily tasks, like tracking benefits, pay and COVID policies.  

“They made a bet on automating everything and eliminated institutional knowledge and careers and, really, the culture at all these resorts in the name of efficiency. And it might have worked,” Kaufman said. “Then a pandemic came and they have a broken HR app that does not work as they try to navigate through a, quote, global talent shortage. The pandemic called their bet and now they don’t have veterans or institutional knowledge.”

Crowds have steadily increased at Vail ski area through December, which is struggling with too few workers during the holidays. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Like Fred Rumford, a  resort industry veteran whose 20-year career with Vail Resorts saw him directing ski schools and skier services at Beaver Creek, Keystone and Vail ski areas. In March, he was fired from his job as director of skier services at Vail in a 30-second Zoom call. 

“By the time I had questions the Zoom call was over and then they didn’t want to talk to me anymore,” said Rumford, who is teaching part-time at Aspen Skiing Co. resorts. “That was the part that hurt the most.”

Rumford, who suspects he was fired because he was reluctant to transfer from his longtime home in Vail to work at Vail Resorts ski areas back East, keeps in close touch with his fellow colleagues. 

“They are very understaffed,” Rumford said. “They streamlined management last year and let go of a lot of people and they are trying to recoup losses from last year by not hiring anyone back. That has increased the workload for those remaining.”

Rumford said lift operations, restaurants and ski school are severely understaffed. Add in COVID outbreaks and the remaining employees “are stretched to their limits.” 

“They tried to drive the bottom line so hard, they put employees last,” Rumford said. “They didn’t invest in their workers. They found workarounds that become the standard operating procedure. They don’t like to reinvest unless it’s showy and glitzy, like chairlifts or terrain.”

Skiers enjoy early season snow at Vail Resort on Wednesday, November 17, 2021, in Vail. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Vail Resorts is an easy target and always has been. The company is publicly traded so all its financial statements are open for public scrutiny, where every other operator, like Alterra Mountain Co., Powdr, Aspen Skiing and Boyne, are privately held with undisclosed numbers. Workers at several of those companies’ resorts also reported challenges with fewer workers and increasing COVID cases. 

The National Ski Areas Association estimated that 60% of U.S. ski areas were unable to fill all open jobs last season and early indications show the 2021-22 season has a similar share of resorts unable to fill seasonal positions.

A Vail Resorts spokeswoman said the company anticipated hiring challenges and this season raised starting wages at its larger ski areas to $15-an-hour. The company requires employees to be vaccinated, but the rise of the omicron variant during the busy holiday season created staffing shortfalls, she said. But ski patrols at all resorts are fully staffed, she said.

“We profoundly understand the challenges our employees are facing. After nearly two years of dealing day-in and day-out with the impacts of COVID-19, our employees are now up against the impacts of staffing shortages – in some cases having to work longer hours or in new roles,” said James O’Donnell, president of the company’s mountain division, in an emailed statement. “Every holiday season is busy and tiring for our teams, but this has been an incredibly hard few weeks – especially for those who just came off of dealing with challenging early season weather conditions.”

Aspen Skiing Co. recently required visitors to wear masks in line for gondolas. Vail Resorts issued the same policy this week. And officials in Pitkin, Summit, San Miguel and Eagle counties have reinstated indoor mask policies. All three resort-anchored counties are reporting skyrocketing COVID cases and impacts to the workforce during the holidays.

“I think we might feel it after the holidays. Hiring was so hard this year but everyone seems to be rallying right now,” said a Telluride ski patroller who is unable to talk on record per the ski area’s policy for talking to reporters. “But I think the canceled flights and COVID might be leaving us a little light on the customer side right now, too.” 

Vail Resorts earlier this month told investors it had $1.5 billion in cash in hand and another $637 million available under debt agreements. The company cut prices for season passes by 20% earlier this year. The volume of sales set records, with Vail Resorts reporting 2.1 million sales of pre-purchased tickets and season passes before the resorts fully opened, a 76% increase in passes sold. Vail Resorts’ stock price has been in record-high territory since October.

“All of that while they are having a labor shortage. I’ve never seen morale so low at the resort,” said a longtime Vail ski instructor, noting how supervisors at the ski area had their pay frozen last year and annual raises were not reinstated despite the record number of passes sold. “Working there is like having a front-row seat watching Vail burn from the inside.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The company’s labor issues reach just about every state where it operates. Skiers from Vail Resorts’ Stevens Pass ski area in Washington on Thursday created an online petition to “hold Vail Resorts accountable.” More than 11,000 people signed the petition in the first 24 hours. 

“We are disgusted with the mismanagement of the ski area, the failure to treat employees well, or pay them a livable wage, and the failure to deliver the  product we all paid for,” reads the petition at change.org. “There is a clear pattern of overselling passes and failing to provide the most rudimentary services to uphold Vail Resort’s end of the deal with consumers.”

Kaufman said many complaints he’s fielded involve the new Epic Employee app. The app is widely panned by employees on download sites like iTunes and Google Play

“I wonder if it was the right time to replace actual people,” said Kaufman. “They sold 76% more passes this year and they have $1.5 billion in cash on hand and they are not able to run their mountains.”


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