This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Rents are up in Nederland and all of Boulder County. Home prices are sky-high. The climbing cost of living is challenging ski patrollers at Eldora Mountain Resort.
“Ski patrol is so much about knowledge that is handed down, and that only comes with experience and hours on the mountain,” said Nick Lansing, who has worked as an Eldora patroller for three years. “People have called us ‘Ski Patrol University’ because we are seen as a sort of training ground for bigger mountains. But there are a lot of people who want to build a career here, and I think we need measures in place to empower them to stay at Eldora, which is good for the mountain as a whole.”
The power to stay starts with better pay. And Eldora patrollers think the best way to get the resort’s Utah-based owner, Powdr, to address pay and retention issues is through collective bargaining.
Eldora patrollers this week filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election to become part of the United Professional Ski Patrols of America, or UPSPA, a growing union representing more than 700 ski patrollers and lift crews at 10 ski areas in the Western U.S. The Eldora patrollers could join workers at Aspen-Snowmass, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Loveland, Purgatory, Steamboat Springs and Telluride in unions that negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions as a unified front.
“Eldora is a business and we wish for it to succeed,” reads a statement from the newly formed Eldora Professional Ski Patrol Association. “We firmly believe that by having a collective voice we will be able to ensure this to the maximum of our abilities. Prosperity in our field is rooted in open communication and honest dialogue, and we see UPSPA membership as the means to this end.”
The labor movement in the U.S. is stagnant. The 10.1% of wage and salary workers in the U.S. who are members of unions is the lowest unionization rate on record. In the 1950s, at the peak of the labor movement, nearly 30% of workers were part of unions.
But the ski resort industry has seen an uptick in collective bargaining in the past few years, led by ski patrollers.
For many years, the only resorts with unionized patrollers were Aspen-Snowmass, Crested Butte, Park City, Steamboat, Stevens Pass and Telluride. But in the past couple years, patrollers at Big Sky, Breckenridge, Loveland and Purgatory have voted to form unions. Lift mechanics at Park City also unionized in 2022. Lift mechanics and electricians at Crested Butte formed a union earlier this year.
The number of resort employees represented by the ski patrol union has nearly doubled in the past two years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 173,000 workers in the arts, entertainment and recreation industries who were represented by unions in 2022, accounting for 7.6% of the workforce. That’s up from 111,000 and 5.5% of the workforce in 2021.
Resort operators have increased wages during an acute labor crisis and housing shortage in the West. Pay for medically trained patrollers and lift mechanics is up as much as 50% in the past several years. Eldora Mountain Resort pays first-year patrollers $19 an hour, up from $18 last season. The resort bumps pay to $20.50 for new hires after about four weeks, after they complete paid preseason training. Patrollers with medical first-responder certifications get an additional dollar an hour.
But the recent pay increases are not enough to keep up with the cost to live in mountain towns. In Colorado mountain towns, home prices have doubled in the past few years and new owners are raising rents. Affordable housing, even for workers earning $25 an hour, is hard to find in the shifting mountain-town landscape.
The increasing cost of living in mountain towns is hollowing out ski patrols. Turnover is a critical issue as fewer veterans are able to train fresh recruits. And Colorado ski resorts are logging record visitation, with the growing crowds burdening ski patrol teams.
The recent pay increases in the resort world, while dramatic, are still only catching up after years as some of the lowest wages in mountain communities. Grocery stores and fast-food restaurants still offer higher starting wages than ski hills in most resort towns.
“We are not really keeping pace with the idea of a ski patroller pursuing a career,” said Ryan Dineen, a Breckenridge ski patroller who works as an organizer for the United Professional Ski Patrols of America union, which is part of the larger Communication Workers of America Local 7781. “We are not compensated as skilled labor educated to the highest level in our industry.”
It’s not just the cost of housing that is driving more workers to unions. The corporate ownership of ski resorts — dominated by three major players, Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Co. and Powdr — is playing a role, Dineen said.
He points to Vail Resorts stock repurchase program. The company spent $500 million in fiscal 2023 to buy back 2.2 million shares and plans to increase its aggressive stock repurchase plan in 2024. (When companies buy their own stock, they increase the value of remaining shares, delivering higher returns to stockholders.)
“That’s a strategic decision by the corporation to put money in one place and not another,” Dineen said. “If you want to keep your mountains as safe as possible, you need the highest trained patrollers attending to those mountains. You are not going to get there paying just the minimum.”
Ski patrollers at Eldora start earning overtime pay when they reach 56 hours in a week or more than 12 hours in a day. Health insurance is offered to seasonal employees after two seasons of work. Lansing hopes collective bargaining can improve those policies.
An Eldora spokesman, in an email, said safety of guests and staff is paramount at the resort “and our patrol family is central to this goal.” The statement notes that “the best way to find consensus … is by having meaningful dialogue rooted in the history and culture of trust among our employees.”
The spokesman said turnover is low, with 85% of employees returning to work for the coming season. This year Eldora hired six new patrollers to join the staff of 42 on the ski patrol, which has grown from a crew of 24 patrollers in the 2016-17 season.
“We believe a union would not benefit our patrollers, employees, guests or our company,” an Eldora statement reads. “Regardless, we respect — and will always continue to respect — the legal rights of workers to freely choose third-party representation, as we respect the rights of those who refrain and choose to be free from the restrictions of such activities.”
You are not going to get there paying just the minimum.
— Ryan Dineen, Breckenridge ski patroller and organizer for the United Professional Ski Patrols of America union
Resorts, not surprisingly, are not fans of unions. While resorts will lobby and cajole workers to not join unions, managers cannot interfere with workers trying to organize.
Last fall Eldora managers sent a notice to all ski area employees that it would not retaliate against workers voicing support for a union under the National Labor Relations Act. The notice was part of a settlement with an employee, Anna Staat, who tried to organize her fellow workers in base-area operations during the 2021-22 season and was not rehired for the job for the 2022-23 season.
“We will not refuse to hire you because you brought workplace concerns to management on behalf of yourself and your co-workers,” the notice read. “We will rescind any prohibition on hiring Anna Staat to the base operations department and we will pay her for any wages as a result of our failure to timely hire her for the 2022-23 season.”
The patrollers at Eldora are not planning a fight with management. They have great appreciation for their director and assistant director, Lansing said.
“We genuinely believe they have been advocating for us and doing what they can to improve our wage situation and retention issues,” he said. “But they have been stonewalled. This effort is about us carrying more weight when it comes to voicing our needs and us taking a seat at the table with Powdr. I see that as enabling the ski patrol director and assistant director to spend more time focusing safety on the mountain and forcing them into that role as conduit for our concerns.”
Dineen said patrollers at more resorts are starting to study unionization.
“I think more are coming. I think the younger generation does not have the same hang-ups and baggage with unions that the older generations have,” he said. “It’s not so much about wage gains as taking ownership of the future and being able to advocate as a team. That’s how ski patrollers and lift mechanics work. It’s a team dynamic that is required to get the job done under pretty stressful conditions.”