Ski Resorts Sweeten The Pie To Attract Seasonal Workers

Dec 3, 2019

It's already been a noteworthy season for Steamboat Ski Resort in Northern Colorado. In October alone, the mountain saw 63 inches of snow, a record high. And that's why the resort's Loryn Duke said it was an easy decision to open on November 15—it's earliest opening ever.

So far, the turnout has been great, said Duke. But she added that an early opening doesn't come without challenges.

"We opened before we were really expecting most of our staff to be on board," said Duke. It's still training a lot of their staff on things like how to operate chairlift machinery as a liftee, or for instructors, the best way to teach a brand new skier how to get down the hill. Currently, the resort is at about 90 percent staffing. Duke said that's a comfortable level, but getting there was the result of a concerted effort.

Right now the unemployment rate is around 4 percent nationally. That makes for a very tight labor market. So to attract seasonal workers, ski resorts across the country are having to do more than just offer free skiing.

"I think everyone in the ski industry is always looking for ways to make their workplace the best workplace," said Duke.

Steamboat has increased base wages to $12.50 an hour-about $1.50 above Colorado's minimum wage. Seasonal workers who stay on for nine to 11 months, get benefits like health insurance, and paid time off and parental leave. Those only on for the ski season get perks like warm lunch or dinner for three to five dollars, and discounted lift tickets for friends and family. Plus, their season pass can be used at other resorts in the area.

"In order to attract the seasonal employee, they realize it's more than the ski pass," said Deb Holloway, a 26-season veteran on ski patrol at Steamboat. But don't call her a ski bum.

"I'd say a ski enthusiast. I'm no longer in the bum classification. My husband and I have worked very hard for 45 years, and I don't think people would consider us bums," she said. Holloway has been doing this work long enough to see the industry evolve, and along with it, the surrounding community.

"The amount of reasonable rental properties is certainly diminishing over time and that's tough," she explained, and that's partly because of the amount of second homes and the rise of services like Airbnb and VRBO taking potential homes out of the rental market. It's this kind of thing that makes hiring workers that much more difficult. Steamboat offers some staff rentals for $350 to 450 a month, about two-thirds cheaper than the lowest end local free market rentals in the area. Plus, the units are right next to the resort. Dr. Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, said proximity is important.

"You're not going to drive from Denver all the way to Vail every single day as a worker," she explained.

When ski resorts don't reach full staff, Nickerson said, or when they're right on that edge, and someone gets sick, "the administrative people are out there doing those jobs, just to fill in." And when that doesn't work, she said, resorts cut down on services, like reducing restaurant hours and closing particular runs.

"You're leaving money on the table. And they don't want to do that. But they're forced to," Nickerson said. She also pointed to another wrinkle in the industry's labor market. Resorts have traditionally depended on J-1 Visa workers from other countries. But because the Trump administration has placed restrictions on that program under the "Buy American, Hire American" Executive Order, that pool of employees has also been reduced. David Byrd, with the National Ski Area Association, said it's not just a problem across the Rockies.

"What I hear a lot from ski area owners and operators, and it's true from large resorts down to small resorts, we're not filling close to all the jobs that we have that are available," he said.

And with such a low unemployment rate across the country, Byrd said if you're looking for a job, the picking is yours. If you do land one of those seasonal jobs, you'll still get the season pass. But ski resorts now know that alone just isn't a sweet enough deal anymore.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Maggie Mullen, at mmullen5@uwyo.edu.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.