Purgatory Patrollers Form Union to Negotiate Better Pay and Benefits


Pete Kemery spent last winter living in his RV parked at a friend’s house.

“I wasn’t paying rent, so I was able to do my job,” said the ski patroller at Purgatory Ski Area, outside Durango. “It’s pretty common for a lot of us. And I guess we’ve reached a point where we can’t do it that way anymore.

This spring, the Purgatory patrollers voted to unionize 35 to 3. Later this month, the patrollers – now part of the United Professional Ski Patrols of America – will meet with management and the owners group Mountain Capital Partners to discuss raising salaries and improving benefits. Last month, 13 of Purgatory’s summer mountain bike patrol riders informed Mountain Capital Partners that they also intended to vote to unionize.

“We want to be able to survive in our city, have a job that means a lot to us, and we want to be able to maintain a very strong team year after year without the threat of turnover,” Kemery said.

Last year, patrollers at Vail Resorts in Breckenridge narrowly approved unionization, joining patrollers at Crested Butte, Park City and Stevens Pass resorts. The Steamboat and Telluride patrollers have been members of the United Professional Ski Patrols of America union for several years. Aspen Skiing Co. patrollers are part of a private union. Last year, Big Sky patrol officers in Montana voted to join a union while Keystone patrol officers rejected a union effort in April 2021.

The pro-union arguments are similar at every station, with professional patrollers troubled by low wages and rising costs of living, lack of financial support for equipment, and the certifications and qualifications needed for their jobs.

Purgatory ski patrollers train with the crew of a Flight for Life helicopter in February 2021 at the La Plata County ski area. (Cameron Kautzman, Special for The Colorado Sun)

Labor is growing in all kinds of Colorado industries, with workers at heavy-duty trucks like Swift Beef Co. in Greeley and several Starbucks stores coming together for collective bargaining alongside workers at small businesses, including Meow Wolf and Trader Joe’s. Even World Cup downhill mountain bikers are weighing in on an athletes’ union after the sport’s governing body signed an eight-year broadcast deal with the Discovery Channel.

So far in Colorado this year, workers at 31 companies have notified the National Labor Relations Board of their intention to vote to unionize, with workers at 14 of those companies endorsing a union and 12 votes pending. This compares to workers at 29 companies in 2021 who voted to unionize with 12 endorsing a union. In 2020, workers at 13 Colorado companies voted to unionize and six approved a union.

In May, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed the Counties Collective Bargaining Bill into law, which grants 36,000 county workers collective bargaining rights. In 2020, Colorado state workers — organized in the 31,000-member Workers for Innovative and New Solutions union — won the right to collectively bargain wages, benefits and worker safety.

The rising cost of housing — and living — at Colorado’s ski resorts has worsened the plight of workers. Few salaried workers can afford to buy houses in ski resorts. Some can barely afford rent.

The average annual salary of about 3,470 ski patrollers, lifeguards and other recreational protective service workers in Colorado was about $31,000 with a median hourly wage of $14.85 in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, about 114,000 lifeguards, ski patrollers and other recreational protection service workers earned an average annual salary of $27,000 in 2021, with a median hourly wage of $12.32 per hour.

Purgatory Ski Patrol paramedic Jonathan Wilson trains with a young volunteer at the La Plata County ski area on Jan. 31, 2022. (Cameron Kautzman, Special for The Colorado Sun)

Purgatory patrollers earn about $15 an hour, but longtime employees with an emergency medical technician certificate and license to handle explosives can earn up to $20 an hour . The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator estimates that a person living alone in La Plata County, southern Colorado, needs to earn $18.67 an hour to reach what the school considers a “living wage”. The school’s calculator pegs the typical annual salary for La Plata County Protective Services workers at $53,703.

Ski resort operators across the country are raising wages in light of a labor crisis that has left resorts understaffed and unable to meet customer demands. This fall, Vail Resorts will raise its minimum wage to $20 an hour. Aspen Skiing and Alterra Mountain Co. also increased worker wages this year.

“We’re well below industry standards,” said Cameron Kautzman, a Purgatory patroller who also works as a firefighter in Farmington, New Mexico. “I think this is a unique time in that nationwide wages are being increased across all industries because the cost of living has gone up so much. It will be interesting to see how that reflects in our negotiations. with MCP and management.

Dave Rathbun, the chief executive of Purgatory, said he was “a bit shocked” to receive the letter of the vote from the National Labor Review Board’s patrolmen’s union earlier this year.

“We pride ourselves on having an open door and talking to our people all the time,” Rathbun said. “Obviously people weren’t happy, but it’s disturbing that they don’t feel comfortable and don’t show up and speak up. I take that sort of thing personally because we try to be a good open place to work.

Purgatory ski patrollers work with Classic Air Medical crew in the La Plata County ski area on Feb. 24, 2021. (Cameron Kautzman, Special for The Sun)

For the past two winters, Purgatory has paid its most reliable workers an end-of-season bonus equal to $1 for every hour worked. All area ski patrollers have qualified for this retention bonus, Rathbun said.

“They are the highest paid seasonal employees, as a group, in the entire company,” he said.

Last year, Purgatory was $1 million under budget on labor costs as it, like all resort operators, struggled to fill positions. This year, the station owners took that million dollars and invested it in salaries.

“We invest a lot more in our human resources,” said Rathbun, who has worked at ski resorts for his entire working life. “From where I’m sitting, it looks like a worst-case scenario with a union representative sitting in what was a direct relationship with our employees. Now we have a third party at the table.

Patrollers believe they can convince Purgatory management and owners that unionization will help their bottom line by limiting turnover.

“If we can close the revolving door, it can save them money and the product will improve,” Kautzman said.

Purgatory Patrollers don’t have a bad relationship with management. This is not an “us versus them” scenario, they say.

“Hopefully we’ve started a movement here in Purgatory that results in everyone getting pay raises,” Kemery said. “For a very long time the outdoor industry has taken advantage of people wanting to work in these jobs and as a result we get paid crap with low benefits. It’s not tenable anymore, that idea. that you can be a ski bum and a pisteur. We have high levels of training and certifications. It’s not just about a decent salary. It’s about fair compensation for our levels of training and the value we bring to the business.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, Jason Blevins’ premium outdoor newsletter. >> Subscribe

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