Purgatory ski patrol staff members are gearing up to start wage negotiations with management in mid-August. Ski patrol staff voted 93% in favor of unionizing last winter after witnessing other patrols at Big Sky, Breckenridge and Park City receive better pay as a result.
In March, Vail Ski Resort announced it would commit to a 30% wage increase, making the minimum ski patrol wage $21 per hour. Other ski areas such as Loveland Ski Area and Monarch Mountain have increased ski patrol wages to $20 per hour while Wolf Creek Ski Area starts all employees at $17 per hour.
A Purgatory union representative said the average Purgatory ski patroller makes $15 per hour while patroller-paramedics with blasting certifications make $19 per hour. As a company policy, Purgatory does not publish wages.
“I think for us, the big thing we want to focus on is what we can do to give people a more livable wage,” said Purgatory ski patroller Cameron Kautzman.
He said wages have played a role in poor retention with the ski patrol staff members. He said the less employee turnover, the safer the mountain will be for guests because experienced patrollers will be on the mountain.
“You can look at it as bottom lines getting larger and having to pay a little bit more, but when you’re not having to train new people or hire new people all the time, it can save businesses money,” Kautzman said.
Purgatory ski patrol staff member Jon Riefenberg has worked in patrol for 28 years with different mountains. He said he’s never seen a ski patrol staff have the turnover Purgatory is experiencing.
He said Purgatory does not pay its patrol staff with medical certifications enough and members are poached by other mountains.
“We end up becoming a farm team for the rest of the state,” he said. “So guys get their training here and leave because they can be paid so much better. Most mountains start ski patrollers in the $20-an-hour range nowadays.”
Kautzman said there are misconceptions surrounding unionized labor groups, and they are often viewed as groups trying to ruin the image of a company. He said this is not the case with the ski patrollers. Instead, they want one common voice that can express concerns with management.
Ski patrollers want to discuss gear stipends because of the wear and tear created throughout the winter season.
Kautzman said ski patrol does not get to choose what conditions they ski in. If the mountain has rough conditions, their equipment takes a beating. He also said the snowmobiles tear up ski boots, which can cost hundreds of dollars to replace.
Training is another area ski patrol would like to address. Ski patrollers are seeking higher wages based on certifications and training, especially if they have higher level medical certifications.
“So to be able to pay people more based on the training they have and then have people with rope training, incident investigation, explosive training; we now have a program that can help control some of the out-of-bounds terrain,” he said.
Purgatory General Manager Dave Rathbun said ski patrol staff members never alerted management about wage-related issues before having a vote to unionize. According to Rathbun, management received word about the union vote from the National Labor Relations Board and once employees seek recognition to form a union, there is a formalized process employers must follow.
“Nobody came forward to speak to management,” he said. “They had their ski patrol director that nobody brought concerns to and nobody brought any to me or our HR team.”
During a period in which interactions were allowed with ski patrol, Rathbun and management met with the staff. During the meeting, Rathbun said there were minor issues brought up but specific requests about wages were not made. Another attempt to hear concerns from staff members was made after management gave a formal speech to the ski patrollers. Rathbun said there were no questions or comments about wages from the staff members.
“There has been no direct engagement on behalf of the patrol before the decision to go through the process of forming a union or after the union vote passed,” he said. “You know, once the union vote passed, we’re in a very specific way that we can and cannot engage with the front-line patrollers.”
But Riefenberg said ski patrol staff members approached Purgatory management about wages before voting to unionize and alerted a manager about wage issues, but he is uncertain whether the concerns were brought up with upper management.
Rathbun said the resort has struggled with employee retention at all positions. In 2021, the resort was $1 million under its labor budget.
“We’ve taken that money where we weren’t able to hire at those positions that were budgeted for and we’re applying that to additional benefits, and then raising wages hoping to get us closer to what our desired numbers are at every single position across the company,” Rathbun said.
In regard to gear stipends, Rathbun said patrollers are given an amount of money for gear damage based on how long they’ve worked for Purgatory and whether they work full time or part time. Patrollers are also reimbursed for gear purchased for the position at the end of the year if they turn in receipts.
Riefenberg said he received about $200 for a gear stipend. He said while working for Loveland he received an $800 stipend and Monarch gave him $500 to cover gear damage.
“Rain or shine, we’re gonna show up and do the job,” Kautzman said. “We’re upset we’re not making enough but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to show up to do our job because it’s not just about a job, it’s about the passion to do it.”