Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Outdoor recreation contributed $374 billion to the American economy last year, or three times the economic activity generated by oil and gas development. But the hundreds of thousands of workers who created that wealth — the raft guides, ski lift operators, restaurant and hotel workers, along with countless others — have long heard low wages justified by the old quip, “You’re paid in sunsets.”
The sunsets will still be there in 2022, but many workers across the 640 million acres of federal land in the United States can also expect to be paid in a little more cash, including thousands of guides and hospitality workers in Utah.
In April, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that will set the minimum wage for federal contractors at $15 an hour, more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. The order is projected to raise wages for 327,000 workers.
By reversing a Trump-era exemption, Biden’s order also applies to an estimated 40,000 private companies that hold permits to operate on federal public land managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies.
That means Utah ski resorts built on forest service land, river outfitters that float through places like Canyonlands National Park or Dinosaur National Monument, wilderness therapy companies that use public lands as a treatment tool, and concessionaires that provide retail and hospitality services in national parks like Zion may be required to pay workers at least $15 starting on Jan. 30, though some companies may not see the rule enforced for months or years.
“Raising the minimum wage enhances worker productivity,” Biden wrote in the order, “and generates higher-quality work by boosting workers’ health, morale, and effort; reducing absenteeism and turnover; and lowering supervisory and training costs.”
‘Crafted in Washington, D.C.’
Many workers who stand to benefit from the new rule have not heard of its existence. The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed over a dozen guides, ski area workers, wilderness therapy instructors and others who make less than $15 an hour and only one of them had heard that the order is set to go into effect next year.
Meanwhile, the businesses associations representing the interests of companies in the outdoor industry have been aware of the order for months. Dozens of organizations submitted or signed onto public comments critical of Biden’s order in August, arguing that a minimum wage hike could lead to layoffs and bankruptcies.
“While we want our employees to feel valued, while we want them to have a decent wage,” said Derrick Crandall, counselor for the National Park Hospitality Association, “these kinds of executive orders that are crafted in Washington oftentimes just don’t reflect the realities of who employees are, what they’re seeking, and how to provide them with a package that’s fair and meets their desires.”
Crandall said members in his organization — which represents concessionaires in national parks such as hotels, restaurants, retail stores, raft tour operators, horse packing outfitters — often rely on overtime during peak summer months and would be required to pay a minimum of $22.50 for every hour of overtime.
About half of the 25,000 people employed by concessionaires in national parks are foreign workers using J-1 visas to work cleaning hotel rooms, preparing food and performing other tasks, according to Crandall.
Other concessionaires hire campground hosts in national forests, for example, who may arrive in their own RVs. Some members of the National Park Hospitality Association that operate in Utah pay the current minimum wage of $7.25 to their workers.
Concessionaires vary in size from small operations in a single park to giants like Xanterra, which has concession agreements in Zion National Park and across the U.S. and is owned by Colorado-based billionaire Philip Frederick Anschutz. A single Xanterra contract in the Grand Canyon could be worth $1 billion in potential revenue over 15 years, according to one analysis.
“The Department of Labor is lumping us in a way that threatens the enjoyment and safety of park visitors,” Crandall said, “because of the fact that we cannot simply increase the payments without finding alternative ways to either charge more or to cut back on the services provided.”
Anastasia Christman, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, which supports raising the minimum wage, said similar concerns about past minimum wage increases have not been borne out.
“I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of those outfitters who have had a tough couple of years and are concerned about how their business is going to go,” she said. “But I do think that the arguments they make are really similar to the arguments that companies in every other industry make when there are proposals to raise the minimum wage. A lot of states and cities have done it, and none of those dire predictions have come true.”
Who will benefit from the minimum wage order?
Former President Barack Obama created a $10.10 hourly minimum wage for contractors in 2014, but it only applied to new contracts with the federal government. Recreational outfitters often operate under multi-year permits. Most special use permits granted to ski areas have to be renewed every 40 years, for example, making Obama’s order not applicable to many workers in the outdoor industry.
“It was the first time people sort of acknowledged that public revenue should not be paying for these poverty-level jobs,” Christman said. “The problem was that it didn’t necessarily reflect the way the contracting is done.”
Former President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2018 that exempted most seasonal recreational workers from the Obama-era rule, including “lodging and food services associated with seasonal recreational services” and companies associated with “river running, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, camping, mountaineering activities, recreational ski services, and youth camps.”
The Trump order came as the National Park Hospitality Association and others were lobbying for greater privatization of the national park system, a phasing out of senior discounts, and pushing to allow Amazon to deliver packages to campsites.
Christman said Biden’s order represents a major step forward for workers compared to previous administrations.
The minimum wage is indexed to inflation, meaning it will rise beyond $15 in the coming years with no further executive action, and it phases out a two-tier system for tipped workers in 2024.
Importantly, it applies not only to new contracts but to any extension, renewal or other modifications to existing contracts.
Though federal agencies are “strongly encouraged” to add minimum wage language to companies with existing contracts and permits under the order, the pay raises could come sporadically across the outdoor recreation industry. America Outdoors, an outfitters association that opposes the wage increase, did not respond to a request for comment. Their website says that many questions about the rule still need to be answered.
Adrienne Isaac, a spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, said the executive order’s “application to the ski industry is narrow at this time.”
The association sent lengthy comments to the Department of Labor in August that Isaac said did not oppose the executive order but asked the administration “to consider our insights on the unique seasonal aspects of our industry in the interpretation and application of this rule.”
Several ski resorts in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City already appear to offer a $15 minimum wage, according to job postings on their websites. Others, like Brian Head Resort in southwest Utah, have job listings for as low as $11 an hour. Resorts that do not offer summer activities may be exempt from the order due to an existing federal labor law that contains a specific exclusion for ski areas.
Ski Utah, which signed onto the National Ski Areas Association’s comments in August, declined to comment.
An honor to row my boats
Madeline Friend, an overnight river guide who works on federal land in Arizona and Idaho, said she supports the executive order.
“Like most hospitality jobs,” Friend recently wrote for The Dust magazine, “the recreation industry relies on wage theft, unpaid sick leave, and unreliable schedules.”
Raft guides on multiday trips, she said in an interview, are required to be on call for 24 hours a day but are often compensated at a daily rate that falls far below $15 per hour.
Martin Litton, a firebrand environmentalist and pioneering outfitter on Western rivers, famously didn’t pay his workers “because it was an honor to row his dories,” Friend said, and that ethos has continued to shape the river running world.
It’s not uncommon for a guide with multiple years of experience to be paid around $150 per day before tips, which would breakdown to an hourly wage of $7.50 for a 16-hour shift with eight hours of overtime and includes no compensation for the overnight “on-call” status. New hires are paid far less.
“If you actually sit down and do the math,” she said, “it’s pretty horrifying how much money you’re actually not getting for how much you are working.”
Utah Guides and Outfitters, a business association that signed onto public comments critical of the order alongside similar organizations from across the WesternU.S., did not return a request for comment.
David Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, opposes the executive order. The association sued the Biden administration on Wednesday, arguing river outfitters do not meet the definition of federal contractors.
“For a bureaucracy just to decide what people get paid and what’s minimal is not the right way to do it,” Costlow said in an interview prior to filing the lawsuit. “The way it was through Congress.” He added that the order will likely increase the cost of river trips for consumers.
“It upsets an industry that seems to have functioned fine for decades,” he said. “It treats us all like we’re downtown New York or downtown Washington under an hourly system. The pay in Lusk, Wyoming, is a little different than downtown Washington, just like rents are little different and grocery prices are a little different.”
But guides who spoke to The Tribune talked about struggling to pay soaring rent in resort towns where river guiding often occurs.
“All work is skilled work, but river guiding specifically and in a very measurable and finite way is skilled labor,” said Kale Cimperman, a river guide who has worked in Utah, Arizona and Idaho. “I am a wilderness first responder. I have swiftwater safety technician training. You have to learn how to row a one-ton boat through Class IV white water, which is not necessarily easy.”
The low wages offered to guides, particularly new guides, make it so the jobs are most often available only to workers from wealthier families.
“People with a safety net can afford to survive with the precarious wages and are taken advantage of, in a way, for that reason,” Cimperman said, adding that a $15 minimum wage could help increase diversity in an industry dominated by people from white and middle-class backgrounds.
Businesses across the country have been struggling to fill lower-wage jobs over the last year in what some analysts have dubbed the Great Resignation, where workers have quit jobs at record rates. And the phenomenon has played out in outdoor recreation destinations like Moab, which has struggled to attract workers as the cost of living and housing prices have skyrocketed.
“One of the biggest economic outcomes of the pandemic has been the soaring cost of living in these outdoor recreation-dependent places,” Lawson said, “because more people are wanting to visit them, more people are wanting to work remotely in these places and take advantage of all those outdoor recreation opportunities.”
Lawson added that businesses across outdoor-oriented communities are feeling the pressure. “They can’t hire employees to staff the restaurants, to guide their rafts, to teach ski lessons,” she said, “because those folks can’t afford to live in these places.
“A $15 minimum wage could help with that,” Lawson continued, “but that alone won’t fix the problem. I think it would take higher wages as well as other programs.”
For those living in rural areas with lower housing costs, the $15 wage could help workers meet basic expenses.
Zack Hall, a head wilderness therapy instructor in southwest Utah, said he is paid $10.45 an hour to lead troubled teens in remote backcountry settings. When he started as an intern last year, he was paid $8 an hour, wages typical of the wilderness therapy industry in Utah, which has high turnover rates.
“I’m technically below the poverty line,” he said. Hall and his colleagues usually work eight days in a row with six days off. “We end up working 80 hours plus 44 hours overtime over an eight-day period.”
Hall believes a wage increase would also result in higher quality treatment for teens in the programs since it might incentivize instructors to stay in the industry longer. A spokesperson for the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council said the wage increase could be “unsustainable” for many of its 21 member programs, including several in Utah.
Although he lives cheaply and is comfortable, Hall said he is concerned about his student loan payments, which are scheduled to restart in January following a pandemic-related moratorium.
“If I were able to get paid $15 an hour at minimum,” he said, “that would go a long way toward me being able to pay off those student loans fairly quickly and then move on to the next step in my life.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.