Part-time Utah ski resort employees are scrambling, some left homeless by closures

Last Saturday, the town of Alta bustled with ski-strapped spring breakers looking to leave behind their daily toils and the overhanging threat of a rapidly spreading and deadly virus known as COVID-19. By Monday night, it was “a ghost town.”

The guests were gone, but so were hundreds of liftees, rental shop workers, ticket takers, bartenders, waiters and lodge workers. When Alta Ski Area announced Saturday that it would close indefinitely as a precaution against spreading the virus, it didn’t just spell the end of ski season. It also brought to an abrupt halt the employment of the seasonal workers who each winter become the lifeblood of this small, tourism-driven ski town.

Alta is just one among many ski resorts across the country forced to halt operations weeks or even months prior to their anticipated closing dates because of the coronavirus. As a result, thousands of seasonal workers have been left without a paycheck and, in many cases, a place to live.

“It’s brutal,” said Rocko Menzyk, who works semi-seasonally for Alta Ski Area as a photographer and in its marketing department and does not live in the resort’s employee housing. “Employees who come here are from all over. We’ve had some friends come over who got kicked out of their lodge, and they would stay the night with us before moving on.”

Each fall, United States ski resorts hire about 100,000 seasonal workers from the U.S. and abroad, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Thousands more find work in hotels and businesses in neighboring towns.

Paul Vatterott, who works as a bookkeeper at Alta’s Rustler Lodge and lives there year-round, witnessed that town’s rapid exodus first-hand. He said of the lodge’s 110 employees, approximately 70 of them were seasonal and living in the lodge. By Wednesday, he estimated 20 still remained.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Managers at Alta's Rustler Lodge bought bus fares and plane tickets for seasonal workers to help them get out of town after Alta Ski Resort closed abruptly late Saturday, March 17, 2020, as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

“This is not only where they work but also where they live,” he said. “Some have family to get back to, but others aren’t as lucky, so they’re certainly struggling. Some who did have jobs to go to, those jobs might not be there.”

Most expected to work from November until mid-April or May before transitioning to summer jobs. But summer work like guiding whitewater rafting trips, serving on cruise ships or even waiting tables has dried up in the fallout from the virus. In Salt Lake City and many other places, restaurants and bars are closed, as are museums and amusement parks, and no one is sure how long it will be until they can resume normal business.

Harrison Gully, 22, and his girlfriend, Jill Palmer, 21, planned to find work in the tourism industry in Hawaii after wrapping up a winter working as liftees at Deer Valley Resort. Most of Hawaii’s tourists arrive via cruises, however, and with most of those unable to port because they have become hotbeds for the COVID-19 virus, Gully said the couple is having trouble finding employment.

“It’s just iffy right now,” he said. “Within the next couple weeks that might change. We’re still applying for jobs in Hawaii. If that doesn’t work out, we will have to find something not as cool as being a tour guide.”

Going from gainfully employed to jobless in the span of a weekend left workers reeling. Many resorts in Utah, however, have been taking steps to make the transition as seamless as possible.

Vail Resorts, which owns Park City Mountain Resort, will allow those who cannot leave right away to stay in employee housing until March 27. The company committed to paying employees through March 22 even if they don’t work and to paying their COBRA medical premiums through April. Vail also issued a letter to its employees from CEO Rob Katz explaining why it is asking people in employee housing to leave as soon as they are able.

In it, Katz said, “Our communities are currently operating under a state of emergency. People in dense housing with unrelated individuals are at increased risk of exposure. Transportation options are becoming limited and you may find restrictions leave you without options available. The community infrastructure is shutting down and local medical resources in our communities need to be focused on the challenge ahead. It is in your best interest, and in the best interest of the community, for those who can return home to do so as soon as possible. We want everyone to be in the right place to get the best support.”

The company has set up a relief fund for employees who are experiencing economic hardships.

Solitude, which does not offer employee housing, will give workers an extra week of pay and made perishable food items from its restaurants available to departing employees. Snowbasin also committed to taking “steps to assist seasonal employees as a result of this rapidly changing situation.”

Gully said Deer Valley promised to pay employees through March 27 and gave them an end-of-season bonus. International employees could stay through the April 12 closing date if they are not able to fly home before that. That is also the case at Alta. In addition, that resort promised workers’ health insurance wouldn’t be affected. Menzyk said he also received three extra weeks of pay.

Shannon Warren, an employment attorney based in Colorado who is familiar with law surrounding seasonal work at ski resorts, said most seasonal workers will not be eligible for unemployment benefits. So, employers are doing themselves a favor by helping their workers in these uncertain times. With seasonal workers in high demand, anything businesses can do to build loyalty will help.

“The product they offer and are selling is an experience,” she said. “These employees are providing that experience. It’s really important for these resorts to have employees who trust them and who believe in a common mission.”

The managers at Alta’s Rustler Lodge may realize the value in that. Vatterott said employees are able to stay as long as needed. Managers have also opened their own wallets to buy bus fares and even plane tickets to help employees get out of town.

But, he acknowledges the lodge is in a tricky predicament.

“We want to help people, but it’s almost worse to house a bunch of people in housing where people are crammed together,” he said. “We can’t control where people go, and it would spread like wildfire through here if it actually hit us.”