Editor's Note: We would like to extend a huge thank you to the patrollers of Park City Mountain Resort and Stevens Pass for not only making this article possible but continuing to keep us safe on the mountain.
For the better part of 2021, ski patrollers at several large ski resorts in the Western US have made headlines as they negotiate their contracts to reflect the dedication they put into their jobs. For those of us that ski at a resort regularly, or even have at all in our lifetimes, we know that ski patrol is an essential part of not just staying safe, but also having a good time on the mountain. This season especially, it’s felt like ski patrollers could use a little extra love as they’ve risked their own well-being to keep mountains open during a pandemic. At the center of these contract negotiations are Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort and Stevens Pass Resort outside Leavenworth, Washington. Both resorts are owned by Vail Resorts and both have been engaged in contract negotiations with patrollers for some time now. We sat down with Cressa Pratt, a patroller and union member at Park City, and Bri Hartzell, the president of the Steven’s Pass patrol union and a Stevens Pass patroller to chat more about patrolling during a pandemic as well as the ongoing negotiations.
Perks of the job. Devin Wilkinson photo.
Hartzell grew up skiing, but not more than one or two weekends a year. After college, she worked guiding for Outward Bound for several seasons before deciding she wanted something more permanent and to put down roots somewhere. She patrolled at Park City for a season before reapplying to Stevens Pass and relocated there. Hartzell has now been on patrol for six years. Pratt grew up in West Valley City, Utah which is, as she puts it, “where most people from Utah who don’t ski live.” She didn’t start skiing until college and her first time out was on her roommate’s tiny K2s. After working a number of seasonal biotech jobs, she wanted to find a more meaningful job in the winter which led her to Park City Ski Patrol. Her first years were at the Canyons side of the resort where the union is well established and accepted. Raised on Pete Seeger’s union songs, Pratt jumped on board with the union pretty quickly. Pratt has been on patrol for four years. Both Hartzell and Pratt have been at the front of negotiations between their respective unions and Vail resorts about patroller contracts and working conditions. There’s a lot happening with these negotiations, but Hartzell and Pratt broke down how being in a union mattered as well as what exactly the patrollers at each of these mountains were working to accomplish.
Park City ski patrollers have been unionized for several years, but the contract they’d been working under expired on November 14, 2020. They had an evergreen extension where they could continue to bargain under the contract and either party could opt out with twenty days notice. The patrollers requested a federal mediator to facilitate communication between the company and the union. Vail ultimately rejected the mediator. The union then started the clock on their twenty days and have been working without a contract since January 1, 2021. Stevens Pass, on the other hand, voted to unionize in April of 2018 and are still negotiating their first contract.
As Pratt explains, Utah is a Right to Work state, which means in order to be a part of a union, every person has to pay union dues and have a membership. The Park City union represents the whole patrol, and their contract represents all of patrol. The benefit to this is that patrollers have the opportunity to sit at a bargaining table with representatives of the company and negotiate with them as equals.
The ants go marching. Devin Wilkinson photo.
When you vote to unionize, Hartzell described, until you have a contract, “Everything kind of locks in in terms of working conditions.” The patrollers at Stevens Pass had a pay freeze, their gear stayed the same, their scheduling stayed the same. Essentially all the moving parts stopped moving. For example, minimum wage went up in the state of Washington and then surpassed the lowest wage that a patroller was being paid, which meant there was a government mandated raise, but the patrollers still weren’t necessarily able to move up the pay scale. National Board of Labor charges have then been filled in response to when that status quo deviates in a large way.
At Park City, patrollers have been working without a contract, which is a legally protected status. The biggest difference there is that they are no longer bound by a no-strike clause and the company is no longer bound by a no-lockout clause. While these clauses haven’t affected the way they do their jobs in the day-to-day, the patrollers have been wearing pins that say “working without” which has sparked conversations about being a unionized patrol.
Patrollers practicing essential skills such as avalanche rescue. Devin Wilkinson photo.
Both mountains also held an initial informational rally, which made many of the headlines pertaining to the negotiations and showed massive support between the patrols.
“We’re very aware the clock is ticking,” said Pratt of their contract negotiations with only a couple months left in the season. “We want patrolling to be a viable career. There’s so much value in having experience and talent and keeping that. It keeps everyone working the job safer, and it makes the guests experience much safer.” Specifically from their bargaining, the patrollers are looking for more advanced training and education and properly fitting and safe uniforms. Additionally they’re looking for adequate sick leave. Currently, patrollers only get sick leave after 1,500 service hours. Given the pandemic, as well as the physical and mental toll the job can take on patrollers, sick leave for things like mental health days are imperative. Lastly, they’re looking for pay raises that are in line with pay raises they’ve received in the past and that align with the increased cost of living in ski towns. Experience in the job also plays a huge role in what the patrollers are looking for with these contract negotiations. “With patrol, we’ve seen a grand loss of experience in terms of years on patrol in the last five to ten years, both in my own experience and talking with my coworkers that are more experienced than I am,” said Hartzell. Stevens Pass in particular features loads of technical terrain, and skills like rope rescue are essential for patrollers to not only understand, but have truly dialed in.
For Hartzell, this also means having retention of more experienced patrollers, and therefore conditions they want to continue working in for long term careers. “A lot of what makes careers beautiful is mentorship in the job. Stevens has one of the highest ratios of women on ski patrol. It’s so important to have a career, there’s ski patrollers that have been there for thirty years. Ski patrolling is a career, whether or not Vail wants to acknowledge that. They’ve told us they don’t want it to be more than a three-year job. But to us it’s a career and as a woman in the industry, it’s important to me to have mentorship and to have mentorship I feel represented by.” Patrol is a job that thrives on mentorship and without patrollers that are willing to stick around season after season, this mentorship, education, representation, and community all dwindle.
For Pratt, it puts her in a funny place given that she’s experienced enough to mentor those newer than her but still feels she has so much to learn from those who have been patrolling much longer than her. “I’m in a weird place as a fourth year,” she reflected, “I’m very much the middle of the patrol experience pack where there’s a good chunk of first, second, third years below me and then there’s these dwindling seven years, ten years, twenty years and I’m like “you guys can’t go, because I still need you, I still have so much to learn from you.”
Some of the technical terrain patrollers are required to navigate on the job. Devin Wilkinson photo.
The pandemic has also had a large impact on how patrollers go about their jobs. “Responding to people, you have to be very close to them sometimes, and it is a little bit scary. Ski vacations are so expensive, it’s hard to ask people to not come to the mountain if they’re having mild cold symptoms. We’re afraid people are just blowing that off cause they spent all the money and all the time. When they get hurt, we’re gonna help them the best we can. If they have COVID symptoms, we’ll do our best to keep the protocols in place and protect ourselves and protect them, but there is always an unknown element,” said Pratt when I asked about her experience working during a pandemic. While Hartzell isn’t working this season due to an injury, she’s heard reports from other patrollers on their conditions given the new protocols. “Stevens Pass is a maritime snowpack-- it rains. If you can only have one person in a top shack, it means everyone else is either standing outside or riding lifts, getting soaked to the bone. It’s a toll on their bodies that’s different from non-pandemic times when you could come in, use a microwave and warm up and put your gloves in the dryer,” she says, detailing just how cold a wet Northwest ski day can be.
The Park City patrollers have had no easy time dealing with the changes in their job either. While they might be a little drier, they’ve had to establish a certain amount of trust when treating guests that skiers wouldn’t come to the mountain while COVID positive. But this isn’t always the case. “There were at least two instances where patrollers were expected to care for people that misrepresented their symptoms. One guy was COVID positive in our clinic and didn’t tell anybody, they found out when they looked him up in the hospital system. But then another person was a high-risk COVID person and they did tell patrol when they responded and they PPE’d up appropriately and were able to transport them down and that person left in their own vehicle.” The additional strain the pandemic has put on patrollers this season is part of what prompted some of these negotiations in the first place.
Practice makes perfect with tasks like this. Lauren Edwards photo.
Mike Goar, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Vail Resorts provided the following statement on the matter: “I have had the opportunity to talk to many of our patrollers over the last few weeks about their concerns. As a former ski patroller myself, I respect and deeply appreciate everything they do for our operations – especially in year as a challenging as this one. Now that we are well into the season with much of our preparations for COVID-19 behind us, I have been able to join the bargaining sessions with our ski patrol’s union, including a productive session today and another scheduled for next week, and feel confident both sides are working together in good faith to make progress while ensuring we provide our guests with a successful season.”
The Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association staged an education rally on Park City’s Main Street as a show of support with their contract negotiators who are meeting with Vail on February 11. “Public support goes a long way,” said Pratt. “People reaching out to us, saying they support us, really makes our day. People reaching out to Vail and saying we support ski patrol at Park City and Stevens Pass and we want you to negotiate with them fairly. It does matter.”
More intense days on the job. Devin Wilkinson photo.
If there’s anything to take away from chatting with Hartzell and Pratt as well as other patrollers, it’s that they love their jobs and that’s why the negotiations are happening. Ski patrol at any mountain exists to keep its guests and employees safe and the requests from the patrol unions are meant to help patrollers do just this. At the end of the day, the longer each patroller is passionate about their job and continuing to work, the better a resort’s patrol will be. This passion, clearly shown by Hartzell and Pratt, as well as experience, mentorship, representation and education all provide examples of why productive negotiations with Vail are imperative to creating strong, lasting patrols.
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