Stevens Pass ski patrollers campaign for contract amid impasse with Vail Resorts

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LEAVENWORTH — Fifteen people may not seem like a lot for a picket line, but the group assembled along Highway 2 in Leavenworth on Saturday represented about 50 ski patrollers who work the slopes at Stevens Pass resort.

The Stevens Pass Professional Patrol Association set up its informational picket in front of city hall, at one of the busiest crosswalks in downtown Leavenworth. Their message to passersby: Ask Stevens Pass management to certify a contract with the patrol union, and pronto.

“We’re asking for protections for some of our safety measures that have been put in place at Stevens, better working conditions and wages, as well as more opportunities for training and continued professional development,” says Katie Warren, a seven-year ski patroller and vice president of the Stevens Pass bargaining unit. “We think that not only do those provide a better patrol to keep our skiing public safe, but we also think that that increases retention.”

Vail Resorts of Colorado bought Stevens in June 2018, for $67 million. Ski patrollers there unionized in April 2019 and started negotiations for their first contract that September. But they say progress on those talks has been stalled for months.

“Sometimes they just flat-out reject proposals that we see as pretty reasonable, but they seem not even wanting to have conversations about,” Warren says. “They just did a no-show on one of our negotiating dates the other day, so we actually have unfair labor practice suit out against them for that. We we requested a mediator to help us, because we understand they have their goals and we have our goals. … They’ve rejected that idea twice.”

Vail Resorts, which also owns major ski areas like Park City Mountain Resort in Utah and Crested Butte Mountain Resorts in Colorado, did not respond to an email request for comment.

Ski patrollers spend an average day making sure skiers are safe on their slopes. That involves rescuing folks who are in trouble or injured, as well as clearing dangerous conditions, like setting off explosives for avalanche control. They’re even tasked with pulling people off ski lifts if they get stuck there.

Ski patrollers says they earn a top wage of about $25 an hour for their seasonal jobs at Stevens, but start out near minimum wage. Warren, at seven years, earns just under $17, but that’s based on her patrol work as well as supporting duties like avalanche control preparation, snowpack assessment, and training fellow teammembers. And she says the upper end of salaries has not expanded as Washington’s minimum wage has risen.

When Vail took over, ski patrollers saw a small boost in pay and some new benefits. But other perks, like free physical therapy sessions for ski workers, went away. Warren says still others, like free passes for family members, became harder to acquire.

“As they kind of eroded away some of these perks, we lost a lot of experienced patrollers,” she says.

And patrollers on avalanche control now have to use the same radio channel as other resort operations, leading to fears about safety.

“I know it’s something our supervisors have pushed back against, and haven’t gotten anything,” Warrant says. “And I’m, as a route leader, very upset about that, because I want to only hear about avalanche control on a morning when I’m out with explosives and doing avalanche control. If anything were to happen, it would be, we need those free lines of communication.”

The same day Stevens Pass patrollers held their picket, their fellow union member at Park City Mountain Resort, also owned by Vail, were holding a picket of their own. That patrol team reached a two-year contract agreement with Vail in 2019, but it lapsed back in November.