President Trump has overturned a rule requiring outfitters to pay river and backcountry guides on public lands a minimum wage.
President Obama instituted a blanket minimum wage of $10.10 for all government contractors. It was also supposed to apply to private businesses that operate on federal lands and rivers. In an executive order this month Trump exempted those private businesses.
Grant Simonds is with the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. He says that an hourly wage system doesn’t really fit the realities of an outfitter managing guides on multi-day trips in wilderness areas.
“Trying to keep track of when they’re on the clock or off the clock would just be a huge burden,” Simonds says.
Most outfitters pay guides a flat daily wage between $70 and $200. Guides also get tips.
River guide Emerald LaFortune says that the most important thing is that guides are paid fairly, whatever the policy. She says running a multi-day river trip is sort of like being a doctor on call.
“Part of the job and part of the profession is that you’re out in these wilderness landscapes, and if someone gets sick at 3 a.m. you don’t get to tell them, 'No, sorry I’m not on the clock right now.'"
This will be LaFortune’s eigth year guiding multi-day trips in Idaho and other states. She acknowledges that some view the job as a summer gig for college students. That’s true in some cases, especially for young guides who lead day trips.
“And while that’s true and that’s a wonderful part of guiding, it’s also a lifetime profession," she says. "It takes a long time to learn how to do well.”
Many outfitters had not yet implemented the minimum wage for guides, hoping an exemption might come through via Congress or the president. Simonds believes that if the rule had applied, many small rafting companies would be put out of business.
“Our industry is very labor-intensive and has lots of overhead,” he says.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke applauded Trump’s move in a statement:
"The order will have a positive effect on rural economies and American families, allowing guides and outfitters to bring tourists out on multi-day hiking, fishing, hunting and camping expeditions, without enduring costly burdens. The outdoor recreation sector is a multi-billion dollar economic engine, and the more people able to enjoy our public lands, the better."
Mac Minard, chairman of the Professional Outfitters and Guides of America, also approved of the order.
“Attending to the health, safety and welfare of clients on an outfitted trip begins at the trailhead and ends days later when everyone has safely returned; compliance with time accounting measures required [by Obama’s executive order] was impossible in this work environment,” Minard says.