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Labor issues put a squeeze on America's $50 billion ski industry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Among other things, the pandemic labor shortage is squeezing America's ski industry, which is worth $50 billion. The industry was already short on workers before the omicron surge, and complaints about low pay nearly led to a strike by ski patrollers in Utah. Now the industry's biggest player is pushing back. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Kyle Gronset steps into his skis. He's an eight-year veteran of the Park City, Utah, Ski Patrol, where, until recently, many patrollers made from about 13 to 18 bucks an hour. Gronset is responsible for everything from evacuating people off chairlifts to handling explosives for avalanche control.

KYLE GRONSET: It's very hard work that we do, especially during storm cycles. It's waking up at 4 o'clock in the morning and going - getting at home at 6 and just passing out.

SIEGLER: Gronset's union recently voted to authorize a strike against this mountain's owner, Colorado-based Vail Resorts, after working most of last year without a contract. They reached a last-minute deal, but the battle has refocused attention to the low wages paid in expensive resort towns.

GRONSET: The winter time is very tight for us, and trying to afford to live here during the winter is very tough.

BILL ROCK: Yeah, I think both sides were pretty clear that nobody wanted a strike.

SIEGLER: Bill Rock is chief operating officer for Vail's region that includes Park City.

ROCK: I think, yeah, happy that we were able to get a great deal for both of us.

SIEGLER: The near strike is just the latest headache for the industry behemoth, which now owns about 40 resorts in the U.S., Canada and Australia. There's the ongoing labor shortage in the travel and leisure industry. Winter came late to the West, delaying the opening of popular terrain. Then, over Christmas, at some of its resorts, 10% of workers were sidelined due to COVID.

ROCK: It's been a hard season, you know, maybe harder than we expected. And I think many of us expected we would be not in the middle of a pandemic, but we still are.

SIEGLER: They're also getting hammered on social media about selling too many season Epic Passes, resulting in a new Epic Lift Line's Instagram feed. It's a daily digest of disgruntled skiers, from Pennsylvania to Lake Tahoe, sitting in traffic or waiting in hour-long lift lines. Skiers booing at one in Vail, Colo., went viral on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKIERS BOOING)

SIEGLER: At Stevens Pass in Washington state, a Hold Vail Resorts Accountable petition is circulating, urging skiers to not renew their season passes if the company doesn't make livable wages a priority. Organizer Jeremy Rubingh has gathered more than 40,000 signatures.

JEREMY RUBINGH: In the same week that they're saying that omicron's the problem, they're acquiring three other small ski areas in the Northeast. You know, our question is, like, can't you just figure out how to run the ones you have right first?

SIEGLER: Vail bought Utah's famous Park City Resort in 2014, and you still hear grumbling in town about a Wall Street firm takeover.

JEREMY WILSTEIN: Tried to go skiing today but ran out of time.

SIEGLER: Longtime locals, like Jeremy Wilstein, say people who work here can't afford it anymore, which threatens the very thing that makes Park City a tourist draw.

WILSTEIN: You know, they're paying people that work at fast food restaurants $17 an hour, and I feel the ski patrollers when they're getting paid 14 or $15 an hour. And Vail just made a lot more money selling a lot more ski passes. So...

SIEGLER: During that labor dispute, Vail reported $1.5 billion cash on hand. The company says it's investing $20 million into worker pay and retention, including implementing a company-wide $15 minimum wage last year. Again, COO Bill Rock.

ROCK: In addition, we just recently announced a $2-per-hour seasonal bonus for our workers in recognition for the incredible work they've done so far this season.

SIEGLER: In Park City and elsewhere, everyone is hoping omicron has peaked.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We're putting them on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Those that can put their skis on so they can get up at the top...

SIEGLER: Ski Patroller Kyle Gronset missed several days' work after contracting the virus over New Year's, which gave him some time to reflect.

GRONSET: People are leaving during COVID. There's definitely a labor shortage everywhere, and if you want that labor, you have to pay for it.

SIEGLER: He's happy to have a new contract but says the livable wage fight in resort towns will only get bigger.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Park City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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