By Matt McDonald
If you've held a seasonal ski resort job you understand what it is to slide along the poverty line in a little corner of paradise that caters to the not-yous. Forget saving money. You need to score three more shifts this week to pay rent on Monday. Bills loom. If you stop long enough to remember you turn 26 in two weeks, knocking you off your parents’ health insurance, your head explodes.
Then, your employer announces another sparkling partnership with three new resorts, plus $50 million in capital improvements that include a hotel and mid-mountain sushi bar. Sure, you'll get a raise if you stay for another season, but at a quarter an hour, it feels more like a gesture than a game-changer. But hey, at least you ski for free, right?
For decades, seasonal work in a mountain town has been all about the experience: living at altitude, accessibility to big adventures, general debauchery, and good friends. Everybody knows you don't make any money—you do it for the lifestyle. If you won't, plenty of other people will.
But with three times the debt and 20 percent less income compared to the previous generation at similar ages (according to the Federal Reserve), young people face more financial pressure than ever. The landscape is changing. Both ski resorts and small businesses are stretching to hold onto a seasonal workforce estimated by the National Ski Areas Association to account for roughly eight in 10 winter employees in ski towns nationwide.
Seasonal employee compensation is a complicated subject. Arguments come from two schools of thought. Plenty of people resonate with the "suck it up" mentality. Most of them are in their 20s and agree that living with four roommates is worth a season of 100-plus ski days.
The other perspective challenges the status quo. With calls for sharp minimum wage increases echoing around the country and some cities like Seattle bumping the hourly wage to $15, the "living wage" conversation keeps evolving.
Most millennials lament trying to pay off debt from loans and credit cards. An NBC News GenForward survey done this spring found that for 60 percent of the generation, debt totals more than their savings. When things get too tough, they ask for more money from their employers. When they don't get it, they leave to find other jobs.
Anecdotal evidence indicates you can't blame them. This winter, my roommate decided to leave his instructor job at Arapahoe Basin when he realized that with gas costs and an unreliable work schedule, he was losing money working there.
Lifties at A-Basin have been known to live in the woods rather than fork over rent in Silverthorne. Up at Big Sky, which is infamous for underwhelming employee digs, former liftie Keenan Sullivan went DIY to save up. "The only reason I made any money was that I froze my nuts off sleeping in the parking lot," he says. "I wasn't going to pay $300 to live in a shoebox."
The town of Big Sky suffers from the well-publicized housing epidemic shared by many mountain locales. The combination of tourists staying in short-term rentals, more homes going seasonal, and an isolated geography equals lack of options and space. Real estate listings and housing search engines, such as Sperling's Best Places and AreaVibes, show living costs in ski towns tend to run 20 to 50 percent higher than the national average, more in higher-end places like Aspen and Vail. These costs force poverty-line frugality.
Miss out on employee housing, and you're competing with everyone else. If you win a spot, you could spend more than half your income on housing or end up commuting up to an hour each way from Leadville to Vail, Bozeman to Big Sky, Carbondale to Aspen.
In short, sucking it up keeps getting harder.
Resorts don't necessarily sweep the struggles of their seasonal workers under the rug, but they're in no hurry to talk about them. Instead, the escalating Ski Pass Slugfest prevails as they dominate the ski industry narrative. Vail Resorts announced in March it would raise its U.S. minimum wage from $11 an hour to $12.25, a move the Aspen Times reported was made possible by $40 million in projected savings during 2018.
In an earnings call at the time, CEO Rob Katz called investment in wages "critical." But at best, the extra $1.25 translates to $200 per month—if you can work 40 hours a week. At worst, that $12.25 is still a paltry number when you consider living costs in Vail, Breckenridge, and Lake Tahoe. By the way, Vail committed the rest of those savings to shareholders as a 40 percent increase in quarterly dividends, also announced by the company in March. Vail's second- and third-quarter fiscal reports show net income growth of 50 percent this winter over last.
It's easy to pick on Vail Resorts for trying to make themselves synonymous with the very essence of the sport. God help us, next season they're introducing Alexa and Siri's rad outdoor cousin, Emma—your Epic Mountain Assistant.
And to be fair, many of Vail Resorts' seasonal employees, like instructors and patrollers, will make more than minimum wage. But in the grand scheme, the raise falls flat. It's also easy to hope an industry leader, who coins its product the Experience of a Lifetime, will be a champion for the people it calls on to provide that experience to customers.
"All of my colleagues and I agree that Vail surely has the money to invest more in us," says Mark Meleski, a Keystone snowcat operator by winter and trail builder by summer. "Most of us have multiple jobs in order to get by." Meleski left a job in aerospace engineering to live, work, and play in the mountains. He made $13.50 an hour this winter. Vail's executive income statements show Katz pulled in nearly $6 million last year, a number that is by no means out of line for the CEO of a publicly traded company. But we're not exactly shaking the 'rich get richer, poor get poorer' narrative here.
Vail Resorts isn't alone. Boyne Resorts, owner of Big Sky, acquired six more mountains this May. Both Boyne and Vail are expanding their employee housing at Big Sky, Keystone, and others, but such progress moves slowly. "Employee housing is a community issue, not just a ski industry issue," says Alterra Mountain Company's Kristin Rust. "Every destination has a different way of going about it. There are no blanket answers."
While housing is a crux problem, it also fails to tell the whole story. Not all employees want to work a season or two and then leave; many of them want to put down roots, start families, and move up. Solutions for these people are obvious.
They need higher purchasing power and the ability to save. Resorts that don't take those needs seriously show their hand—they are content providing just enough to give employees the Experience of a Lifetime and then replace them with someone else in a season or two. Harsh as this approach may be, it is sound economics.
Unless the demand goes away, that is. And the thing about that beautiful ski bum life is you don't have to work at a ski resort to live it. If other companies in mountain towns figure out how to give their employees more than the resort does, the game changes.
The Aspen branch of Ski Butlers, a ski rental outfit with 18 locations across the West, knows it operates in one of the world's most expensive mountain towns. "All of this is why we are going to need to pay more. These people walk the stress of the week-to-week tightrope," says owner Riley Tippet, whose employees earn $16-$19 with tips—plus a ski pass.
Other employers share that sentiment but still struggle to attract employees. Bob Spees, general manager of South Lake Tahoe's Powder House ski rental shop, would love not to rely on foreign workers with J-1 visas, a program with a cloudy future under the Trump administration. He says paying $15 per hour or more and offering a ski pass would make a difference. "But you wouldn't be able to," he says.
And what's the one thing that could be worse than the workforce getting other seasonal jobs? Skipping the seasonal work altogether. The age group that this type of ski resort work was built on has changed, says Kirstin Heinritz, who has taught skiing part-time at Beaver Creek for 17 years. Before that, she worked in Vail Village for two seasons post-college.
"My dad lived in a ski town after college," she says. "That trend in society doesn't happen as much anymore because of the financial burdens and the financial pressures. We made sacrifices to live there. Are kids willing to keep doing that? I don't know."
Back in your shoebox, that 26th birthday looms. You punch "universal healthcare in Switzerland" into Google, just for kicks.