PHOTO: Brian Becker

The U.S. Department of Labor has deemed official that full-time ski patrolling is one of the worst-paying jobs in America, according to a report by the organization’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Falling under the “Lifeguards, Ski Patrol, and Other Recreational Protective Service Workers,” ski patrollers earn, on average, $10.11 an hour, making less annually than 97 percent of the professions available in the U.S., including parking lot attendants, crossing guards, and manicurists.

“Ski patrolling is a specialized job that takes years of experience to really understand the mountain,” says Johnny Miner, who has worked on the Park City Ski Patrol for 27 of his 54 years. “I think a lot of people see this as a ski bum job—you do it for a couple of years and you move on. But there are quite a few of us that make a career of this.”

Patrollers will always have the obvious perk of skiing powder before we get milk on the cereal. They also report to one of the most hazardous office spaces in the world, spending hours on end in avalanche terrain. Coupled with the low wages and an oft lack of benefits, the push for change in patrol shacks everywhere is strong.

“It’s a great job, but it’s hard on the body, and we aren’t getting compensated,” says Rey Deveuax, a 42-year-old veteran patroller at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. “We don’t get 401ks, we don’t get insurance, we don’t have life insurance. If you lose your life doing control work, your family is given 60 percent of your salary for a couple of years, then that’s it.”

“We look at ourselves like cops and firefighters. Those groups are unionized across the country, and it’s for a reason.”

That’s why, as the dust settled around the historic merger of Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons Resort under a singular Park City Mountain flag, the men and women routinely protecting those Eastern Wasatch slopes found themselves fighting to protect their future.

After months of campaigning, the newly established Park City Mountain ski patrol voted to unionize on December 14, 2015, becoming the latest in a growing number of professional patrols to seek intervention at the labor union level.

“We have a much better employee retention rate when we have a collective voice,” says Miner. “If you can keep people around, you have a better mountain, a stronger patrol, and a better overall product for the guests.”

Compared to EMTs, who earned a median salary $12,000 higher in 2014 ($31,270 versus $19,040), ski patrollers are looking at compensation versus risk, and finding the equation doesn’t add up. To right the scales, pro patrols are finding their solutions in labor unions, the same organizations that have protected other emergency professionals for decades.

In March 2015, Telluride’s ski patrol successfully formed its first union, and while Taos Ski Valley patrol failed in its attempt to unionize in the fall of 2015, the newly organized Park City Mountain patrol followed suit last December. For big resorts, that unionization rocks the operational boat, shifting power structures and potentially affecting the all-important bottom line. But for the men and women on the front lines of resort safety, that collective voice is quickly becoming the difference between a thankless hobby and a lifelong career.

“We look at ourselves like cops and firefighters,” says Pete Earle, the former president of the Canyons Professional Ski Patrol Association (CPSPA), the Canyons Resort union that started in 2001. “Those groups are unionized across the country, and it’s for a reason.”

A ski patroller's knowledge of the mountains increases with his years. No longer is this job just for the ski bums. Many are making it their career. PHOTO: Bruno Long

A ski patroller’s knowledge of the mountains increases with his years. No longer is this job just for the ski bums. Many are making it their career. PHOTO: Bruno Long

The ski patrol union can be traced back to the mid-1980s, when Breckenridge and the four mountains that now make up Aspen SkiCo (Aspen Highlands, Ajax, Buttermilk, and Aspen Mountain) formed the first recognized ski patrol collectives.

But it was the rise in the 1990s of the American Skiing Company, a conglomerate that included over a dozen ski resorts in its heyday, the largest ever assembled up to that point, that really increased the need for a megaphone heard on a corporate level. Suddenly resorts owned by families and small investment groups were just cards in a larger deck, and its employees became, well, replaceable.

“If a company gets big enough they lose insight of an individual and their value,” says Miner. “You’re looked at as a resource, not a person.”

Feeling the heat of a new power structure, the pro ski patrols at three ASC resorts—Steamboat Springs, Killington, and Canyons—unionized between 1999 and 2001. For Canyons, the move to organize manifested higher wages, leaves of absence, and incentive-based positions like hill captains (“higher responsibility begets higher pay”). It even extended to avalanche dogs, who for the first time had their food and vet bills paid by the resort. Though ASC officially dissolved in 2008 amid a mountain of debt, the unions lived on, adding Crested Butte and Telluride ski patrols to their ranks.

Canyons Resort joined the Communications Workers of America (CWA)—a national labor union representing a gamut of workers stretching from flight attendants to correctional officers—as the Canyons Professional Ski Patrol Association (CPSPA) in 2005. Along with Steamboat Springs, Crested Butte, and Telluride, the CPSPA formed the United Professional Ski Patrols of America (UPSPA). The CPSPA operated until October of this year, but after the Park City/Canyons merger, Vail indicated the CPSPA would no longer be recognized under new management.

Weighing compensation versus risk, some ski patrollers have found the equation doesn't add up. They are looking to unions to help their concerns be heard and addressed. PHOTO: Jim Harris

Weighing compensation versus risk, some ski patrollers have found the equation doesn’t add up. They are looking to unions to help their concerns be heard and addressed. PHOTO: Jim Harris

For Earle, Miner, and the other 80 members of the long-standing union, that meant starting from scratch and either unifying the previously separate Park City and Canyons patrols as a single union or folding after a decade and a half of representation. The two months ahead of the December union vote saw a chaotic mix of meetings, informational sessions, and email blasts from the pro-union patrollers, the resort itself, and a series of Vail-appointed anti-union lawyers. On December 14, a unified Park City pro patrol voted 97-94 in favor of unionizing, giving birth to the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association (PCPSPA) and the newest member of the CWA’s United Professional Ski Patrols of America.

In response to the union result, patrollers rejoiced, while Vail Resorts Chief People Officer Mark Gasta issued the following email statement:

    At Vail Resorts our goal is to create an experience where employees feel passionate, engaged, and empowered and we don’t believe involving third parties with their own agendas helps that.

That third party, the CWA, is exactly what the Park City patrol association hopes will fight for their workers’ interests under their new ownership. Gasta continued, adding:

    That being said, we also respect the right of our employees to make their own informed choices on representation, which sometimes can be because of a long history, as in the Canyons. However our goals and efforts for our employees always remain the same.

It appears that Vail’s initial efforts will be dedicated to working with the newly formed union, as they have agreed to sit down with the Park City ski patrol union. It’s a potentially career-changing event for the group, which now represents 194 members between the two mountains (112 of whom have never worked within the union parameters before). Until a contract is signed, the members will not receive union benefits.

Deveaux worries about the next generation of patrollers coming up, a group with college debt, looming mortgages, and low wages—a reality he considers daunting without the bargaining power of a union.

“If ski patrols across America get together and set an industry standard, people throughout the industry will benefit from what we negotiate,” says Miner, who, through his tenure on the Park City patrol, is a 17-year union member under the CSPSA. “With us being part of the largest ski resort in North America, it’s important that we try and set a high bar for everyone else.”

It’s a process that isn’t all rainbows and cotton candy. For one, being part of a union costs money, about $130 a year, according to Earle. It’s an added stress on an already stressful job, as full-time patrollers on the union board often need to find someone to cover shifts while they enter negotiations. Miner says his time on the board was hectic, and that he even suffered nightmare episodes during crucial negotiation periods (adding that he no longer serves on the board).

But the decision made at Park City will also influence patrols like that at Taos, were a group including Deveaux were unable to unionize after a vote last November. Despite having nearly 80 percent support a few weeks before the vote, a 22-22 tie with one blank ballot was not enough to secure a union for the upcoming season.

Deveaux worries about the next generation of patrollers coming up, a group with college debt, looming mortgages, and low wages—a reality he considers daunting without the bargaining power of a union.

In the meantime, Kogler is currently helping the Beaver Creek ski school achieve union status and receives a flurry of calls and questions from patrols across the country every time a new patrol union organizes.

“The profession just hasn’t been recognized for what it is that these guys and gals do on skis,” he says.

The Park City union is moving to make sure that happens, but faces the potentially challenging next step of sitting down and negotiating a contract with Vail Resorts. If the two parties cannot agree to a new contract within a year, a union can be decertified when 30 percent of the ski patrol union members decides against it, essentially requiring another vote to decide if the union will exist the following year. At Park City, only three votes separated ‘yes’ from ‘no,’ meaning union dissolution is a very distinct possibility.

Ed Kogler, CWA’s District and Administrative Director and overseer of the UPSPA, says he has seen larger corporations stall the contract process to force a deadline, but he is hopeful Vail will be willing to sit down and negotiate a deal by season’s end.

In the meantime, Kogler is currently helping the Beaver Creek ski school achieve union status. He receives a flurry of calls and questions from patrols across the country every time a new patrol union organizes. It’s a sign of changing times in the skiing power structure and a trend he hopes continues for an overlooked sector in the ski industry.

“The industry has grown up and become profitable and the key employees have been left out of the equation economically and just from a dignity and respect kind of thing,” says Kogler. “I think that has created a rub.”