Vail Resorts and Park City ski patrollers’ union remain deadlocked after 50th bargaining session

Vail Resorts, which has repeatedly rejected the union’s request for a $2 per hour wage bump, announced a similar bonus to all employees before meeting with the union on Monday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Park City Mountain Resort on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.

The 50th bargaining session between the Park City ski patrol union and Vail Resorts on Monday night resulted in the same conclusion as the previous 49 talks: a stalemate.

Going into Monday evening’s negotiation, the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association announced that nearly all of its 171 members had voted to authorize a strike, but Vail Resorts did not bring a new contract proposal to the table, despite the development.

The union hopes to head back to the negotiating table on Wednesday.

“We sincerely hope that the company will choose to present a contract during our meeting tomorrow that achieves a reasonable wage structure for our program,” the union’s board members said in a statement. “Beyond this, we feel that our options for any progress at the table have dwindled.”

Just hours after the union made its strike authorization public on Monday, Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch emailed employees at ski areas across the country, announcing an end-of-season bonus.

Due to the “particularly challenging impacts” of the COVID-19 omicron variant, staffing shortages and other factors, Lynch said, many employees have had to carry an extra burden this ski season.

In light of those difficulties, Lynch announced an incentive for employees to stick it out for the next several months: A $2 per hour bonus for all hours worked from Jan. 1 through the end of the season, or April 15, which would amount to $1,200 for most full-time employees.

The email included a single footnote. Union members would be eligible for the bonus, Lynch said, “subject to their acceptance and the terms of their contract.”

Park City Mountain, Utah’s largest ski resort, would likely shut down or be significantly impacted in the event of a strike due to the critical safety services ski patrollers provide.

For months, the ski patrollers’ union that represents the vast majority of patrollers at the Vail Resorts-owned Park City Mountain has been holding out for a $2 per hour pay increase in contract negotiations. The Colorado-based ski giant has repeatedly offered a $15 per hour base wage to ski patrollers — the company’s standard for all employees across the majority of its resorts — and the union has rejected those offers, arguing the offer doesn’t meet industry standards.

Aspen-Snowmass, Vail’s major competitor in Colorado, for example, offers $17 per hour to rookie patrollers as do other large resorts in Utah such as Solitude.

The union again did not accept the resort’s previous offer of $15 per hour for rookies on Monday, said Patrick Murphy, the union’s business manager who has been on the ski patrol for five years.

Murphy said the company framed the bonus as a way to address the pay bump the union has asked for, but he noted the bonus — a one-time, retroactive payout — is not equivalent to a wage increase.

Vail Resorts offered an end-of-season bonus to employees last year that initially excluded union members, the Colorado Sun reported at the time.

“We are pleased to see that the company has offered a bonus to all employees to recognize the incredibly hard work that has gone into this season already and to take into account the additional burden we have all had to carry,” Murphy said.

But Murphy added that the latest bonus “is contingent on our patrol accepting the terms of the contract extension, does not contain any wage increases for our patrol and would only serve to further increase wage compression.”

In addition to the standoff over base salaries, wage compression has been a major sticking point in the negotiations. Some patrollers with over ten years of experience are making as little as $19 per hour, Murphy said, despite the medical and site-specific explosives training required to perform the job’s duties. The union says that needs to change.

Both sides have been preparing for a possible strike since late last month when the union launched a solidarity fund that could be used by members in the event of a work stoppage. It had raised $90,000 as of Tuesday.

Gabriel Winant, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, said that parts of federal labor law are designed to prevent employers from offering raises or bonuses to workers who vote against forming a union. But Vail Resorts likely did not violate the law in this case, he said.

“What [Vail] is doing, I would think, is something that employers often do in contentious labor relations situations,” Winant said, “which is to try to convey to members of the union that their collective action has no bearing on the employer’s decision making.”

Repeatedly rejecting the union’s request for a $2 per hour raise and then offering it as a one-time bonus to all employees, he continued, “is a way of conveying to the ski patrol workers that you don’t have any leverage” and compensation decisions lie solely in the company’s hands.

Winant noted that strikes across the country have been successful for workers in recent months.

Two Vail Resorts ski patrols — in Breckenridge, Colo., and Stevens Pass, Wash. — recently organized unions, reflecting a shifting labor landscape in the ski industry. Prior to Vail’s purchase of Park City in 2014, ski patrollers on the Canyons side of the resort were already unionized.

“In general, employers in newly organizing industries, especially in this historical moment, underestimate the determination of average workers because they have not encountered it recently, or ever,” Winant said.

Vail Resorts did not respond Tuesday to questions about the ongoing bargaining discussion.

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.