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Ski Areas Find Seasonal Workers In Short Supply

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the ski season in the United States. There's usually enough snow around for resorts to open by now. But ski areas need something else - seasonal workers, who are becoming harder to find. Wyoming Public Radio's Maggie Mullen reports.

MAGGIE MULLEN, BYLINE: David Byrd with the National Ski Areas Association says for a long time, ski resorts had one big incentive to attract all the workers they needed - a season pass.

DAVID BYRD: Those days are long gone.

MULLEN: That's true, says Lauren Duke with Steamboat Springs Ski Resort (ph) in Colorado. She says it's tough to hire with unemployment around 4 percent nationally.

LORYN DUKE: The resort industry usually trends with the economy.

MULLEN: Here at the base of the Steamboat's Christie Peak Express Lift, Duke says that means resorts have to do more.

DUKE: I think everyone in the ski industry is always looking for ways to make their workplace the best workplace.

MULLEN: Steamboat has increased base wages to $12.50 an hour, about a buck fifty above Colorado's minimum wage. Seasonal workers who stay on for 9 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 $3 to $5 and discounted lift tickets for friends and family. Plus, their season pass can be used at other resorts in the area. Deb Holloway, a 26-season veteran of Steamboat Ski Patrol, says she's seen affordable housing become more of an issue.

DEB HOLLOWAY: The amount of reasonable rental properties, I think, is certainly diminishing over time. And that's tough.

MULLEN: As second homes and services like Airbnb and VRBO are reducing housing stock in resort areas, more resorts are offering workforce housing. Steamboat offers some staff rentals for $350 to $450 a month, about two-thirds cheaper than the lowest-end local free market rentals. Plus, Steamboat's units are right next to the resort. Norman Nickerson says that kind of proximity is important.

NORMA NICKERSON: You're not going to drive from Denver all the way to Vail every single day as a worker.

MULLEN: Nickerson directs the University of Montana's Institute for tourism and recreation research.

NICKERSON: I know that some of the ski resorts have said, well, if we don't get full staff or we're - you know, we're right on that edge. And then, of course, somebody gets sick, or they can't be there for a few days. The administrative people are out there doing those jobs just to fill in.

MULLEN: And when that doesn't cut it, she says resorts cut down on services, like reducing restaurant hours and closing particular runs.

NICKERSON: You're leaving money on the table. They don't want to do that, but they're forced to.

MULLEN: Another wrinkle in the industry's labor market - resorts have traditionally depended on foreign workers in the U.S. on J-1 visas. But a Trump administration executive order placing restrictions on that program means that pool of employees has also been reduced. David Byrd says it's not just a problem across the Rockies.

BYRD: 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 selling close to all the jobs that we have that are available.

MULLEN: And if you do land one of those jobs, you'll still get the season pass. But ski resorts now know that alone just isn't a sweet enough deal anymore. For NPR News, I'm Maggie Mullen in Laramie.

INSKEEP: That story came to us from the Mountain West News Bureau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.