Across the West, ski patrollers are organizing and fighting resorts to achieve the better wages and working conditions they feel they deserve.
In January of 2022, the park city Professional Ski Patrol Association (PCPSPA) was about to enter its 50th round of negotiations with Vail Resorts. And they were buzzing with frustration.
The patrollers’ contract with the resort had expired almost 1 1/2 years prior in November 2020. At the time, the base salary for a ski patroller was just $13.25 per hour—a meager rate for the long days patrollers spend working in challenging conditions, on dangerous terrain, using explosives, saving lives, administering emergency on-mountain care, and making mountains safer to ski. They wanted $17 an hour. With the rising cost of living in and around a ski town like Park City, that only seemed fair. So they began negotiations with Vail Resorts.
But when unions enter negotiations, workplace conditions freeze. Schedules stay the same. No new gear is purchased. And pay rates lock in place. So over the next 17 months, as all other employees at Park City saw pay raises, ski patrollers did not. By January of 2022, they were the lowest-paid Vail employees in the resort. They’d been offered $15 an hour, but it wasn’t enough. The patrollers knew Vail could meet their demands; they knew Park City couldn’t possibly operate if they went on strike; and, more than all of that, they knew what they were asking for was reasonable. So they held out—month after month, bargaining session after bargaining session, nearly two full ski seasons in a row.
They didn’t get everything they’d hoped for, Dineen admits, but neither did Vail Resorts. Which is the nature of negotiations.
Then the email leaked. Vail Resorts still denies it was an official correspondence—that it was “not authorized” by the company. But the Salt Lake Tribune independently verified the email came from a Vail Resorts employee. It was signed by a patrol director and sent to patrollers at the Vail-owned Attitash Mountain Resort in New Hampshire.
“Our company Vail needs temp patrollers at Park City,” the message read. “Anyone interested? All travel plus $600 a day for costs covered.”
It was a slap in the face of the ski patrollers—$600 a day on top of travel expenses? That’s almost six times what the Park City patrollers were making at the time. Authorized or not, that email was the last straw for PCPSPA. The situation had reached a boiling point.
That email leaked on a Thursday in January. The following Monday, the union had voted almost unanimously—168 to 6 (98%)—to strike if the $17 per hour demand wasn’t met. And without ski patrol to protect and oversee the mountain, everything would come to a grinding halt.
“We were very close to walking,” says Lee Moriarti, a Park City ski patroller involved in their union negotiations. “We were at a point where it was contract or strike.”
Park City’s situation got closer to an actual strike than it has elsewhere, but labor movements aren’t an uncommon trend among ski patrols these days. They aren’t new either. Ski patrollers at all four of Aspen’s resorts unionized in 1965. Then Crested Butte’s unionized in the late ’70s, followed by Breckenridge in the mid-’80s. Steamboat ski patrol unionized in 1999; Canyons in 2000; Killington in 2001; and Telluride in 2015. Most recently, Purgatory patrollers voted to unionize toward the end of 2022’s ski season.
However, even among ski patrollers, unions aren’t universally supported—as evidenced by the saga at Breckenridge. That ski patrol had been one of the first to unionize in the country. But in 2004, the patrol reneged, decertifying as a union, and remaining un-unionized for over a decade and a half. Until 2021.
“We didn’t have much of a voice, and we weren’t necessarily valued as a department,” says Ryan Anderson, a nine-year Breckenridge ski patroller who helped lead the unionization efforts. “We just kind of were taken for granted.”Breckenridge’s full-time patrollers didn’t have paid time off or sick leave; there was no employee housing available for them; staffing was inadequate; and, just like at Park City, Breck’s patrollers didn’t think their compensation was fair.
All of that had been simmering for several seasons. But, Anderson says the real lens that exposed how little Vail was willing to do for them was COVID-19. The pandemic brought a whole new set of rules that ski patrollers needed to follow in order to stay safe. They needed to wear PPE whenever they interacted with guests; they had to practice social distancing in the locker rooms; and could only have a few patrollers in a warming hut at any one time—which resulted in several cases of frost-nip among Anderson’s colleagues.
“There didn’t seem to be much action by the company to give us a valid working environment to accommodate those [COVID-19] rules,” he says. Most patrollers were on-board for the extra health precautions; they just didn’t feel supported to practice them, and it was making work very difficult. “I had a few coworkers in the space of a week say they didn’t know if they were coming in on Monday.”
That did it for Anderson. He and a few other like-minded patrollers, like Ryan Dineen, who had a decade at Breckenridge under his belt, got together and started circulating a union petition.
“We didn’t want to leave our profession,” says Anderson. “So we had to attempt it.”
The union petition went around and the signatures stacked up. When they had enough (overwhelmingly, with more than 70% of the patrollers signing), they filed it at the end of March 2021 with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Not only did that notify Vail that its Breckenridge patrollers were attempting to unionize, but it started a clock. The patrollers had six weeks before they officially voted to become a union, over which time, Vail Resorts held numerous captive audience meetings and sent letters to patrol managers, trying to discourage them from staying the course.
“Our employer chose to travel the well-worn path of an anti-union campaign,” says Dineen. “And the purpose of any anti-union campaign is not necessarily to make logical arguments. … It’s truly to spread disinformation… to disempower, divide, and delude the collective voice that workers need to make real change.”
The arguments against unionizing ranged from: Do you really know what you’re signing on for? To, What if you can’t negotiate a better contract?
“And their favorite one is, A union is a third party that’s just going to get in the way of us communicating,” says Dineen, even though, without one, patrollers had no negotiating power with which to communicate.
On the day of the vote, Dineen had no idea what to expect. The month before, patrollers at Big Sky had voted in favor of unionizing, and patrollers at Keystone had rejected unionization. At Breckenridge it could easily have gone either way, he says.
When the results came back, it was a tight margin by any measure: 43–42 in favor of unionizing. The Breckenridge ski patrol would officially become part of the United Professional Ski Patrol of America (UPSPA), a chapter of the Communication Workers of America (CWA).
“There was definitely a moment of like, ‘Oh, my God, we won,’” Dineen recalls. “And then it was like, ‘Oh, my God, we only won by one vote.’”
That narrow victory made it clear how much work they had ahead of them, Dineen says. He and his colleagues worked all summer long laying the groundwork for negotiations so when winter rolled around again, they could hit the ground running. And that’s exactly what they did.
Unlike the Park City patrollers, the Breckenridge ski patrol reached a deal with their resort fairly quickly. In just eight sessions, they’d hashed out a satisfactory contract. They didn’t get everything they’d hoped for, Dineen admits, but neither did Vail Resorts. Which is the nature of negotiations.
“We were able to come to an agreement quickly,” he says. “I was very pleased with how things went.”
After decades of dormancy, labor movements like these ski patrol unionizations have seen a resurgence in recent years. Just in the first nine months of 2022, there was a 58% increase in petitions for union elections. Workers at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, American Airlines, Kaiser Permanente, and at ski resorts across the country (not just Vail’s) have been engaging in walkouts, protests, practice strikes, and actual strikes. Right now, support for labor unions is higher than it’s been since 1965, at 68% according to recent Gallup polls.
No matter who you’re working for, working conditions have a much better chance of improving if the workers stand in solidarity, Anderson says. As he puts it, “Alone, we beg; together, we bargain.”
And for ski patrollers, bargaining power is a good thing to have. On the compensation list of U.S. occupations, out of a total of 1,395 types of jobs, patrollers rank 1,363rd. Anderson attributes that to the seasonal nature of their work, and the fact that most workers in the ski industry only stay for a year or two.
“The impermanence of the workforce allows for a massive amount of undercompensation,” says Anderson. “And without a voice in the process, I don’t see that changing.”
We reached out to Vail Resorts numerous times with interview requests. Eventually, it responded with the following written statement: “While we respect the right of team members to choose to have an outside third party represent their employment terms, we fundamentally believe our team is strongest when we have a direct and open relationship. This helps us maintain personal connection, foster an inclusive culture, and reward performance.”
At the end of its 50th negotiation session, the PCPSPA walked out with a contract. It was a marathon 15 hours of negotiations, but in the end, the patrollers got their $17 per hour and a contract that both parties could agree to, narrowly avoiding the strike.
It was a monumental victory for Park City’s ski patrollers.
“We’re optimistic, looking forward. We feel like we’re in a good place,” says Lee Moriarti, with Park City ski patrol. “The contract that we have now is a good contract and a good stepping stone moving forward.”
Then, in March 2022, just two months after Park City’s contract agreement, Vail Resorts announced “a new direction for the company.” Among other adjustments, Vail was raising the minimum wage across all of its 37 North American resorts to $20 per hour for all of its employees—and $21 per hour for ski patrollers with adjustments based on leadership and “career stage differentials.”
Moriarti says she and other Park City patrollers feel pretty good about that.
“We put a lot of pressure on the company to rethink what is fair pay for people living in mountain towns,” she says. “I think that’s a really positive thing that we’re seeing.”
Dineen agrees that raising the minimum wage was a good idea, but with some caveats.
“It is not lost on me that the base wages offered are similar to wages that ski patrols have proposed in the past during contract negotiations,” he says. “It does not build trust or honor the spirit of mutual respect when one party claims they simply cannot raise wages during negotiations only to do exactly that after the contract has been signed.”
Even with Park City’s and Breckenridge’s victories behind them, the work isn’t over for these ski patrol unions. The work is never over, Dineen says—which is why he’s taken on a part-time role with the CWA as an organizer for UPSPA, helping other ski patrol units to navigate the strange and complicated waters of unionization. The whole experience has really opened his eyes to the power of organized labor. Neither he nor Anderson had any real personal experience with unions prior to this—now they both see unionization as an absolutely essential aspect of their employment.
“The ski industry needs to join the labor movement because the ski industry, in my opinion, is built on a vastly undercompensated workforce,” says Anderson. “This is almost a necessary step for the long-term success of ski industry workforce personnel.”
Dineen echoes those sentiments.
“I would recommend unionization for every ski patroller, lift mechanic, cat driver, ski school teacher, hotel worker, maintenance person,” says Dineen, whether they’re employed by a big resort corporation or a small mom-and-pop ski area. “Collectively, we are a huge generator of capital for a small number of people. And we deserve to collectively be compensated fairly for that.”
Cover Photo: Courtesy of Park City Ski Patrol