Vail Resorts workers say efforts to improve employee experience at odds with class-action settlement

Vail Mountain employees at the base of Gondola One on March 7, 2022. Vail Resorts on Friday settled a labor lawsuit in California District Court.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

Amid Vail Resorts efforts to present itself as a company that prioritizes resort talent, a lawsuit involving many of the company’s employees isn’t helping that end.

Vail Resorts’ new $20-per-hour starting pay initiative hasn’t been well received by many of the company’s longtime workers, some of whom see the public relations push as a hypocritical gesture when viewed alongside the company’s offer for an unfair labor practices lawsuit settlement dubbed as “pennies on the dollar.”

Numerous Beaver Creek employees communicated the same sentiment in interviews with Vail Daily following a spring 2022 meeting in which the employees learned of the higher-pay initiative. Several of these employees wished to remain off the record, but expressed similar opinions as those who spoke on the record.

One of the key takeaways for employees who have spent many extra credit hours on the job unpaid over the years is that $20 per hour for unpaid working hours still amounts to zero.

‘Our strategic priority’

Vail Resorts CEO Kirstin Lynch, in announcing the company’s increase in its minimum wage in March, described the effort as an attempt to return to full staffing.

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“We are looking at making our resort talent our strategic priority,” Lynch told investors in Vail Resorts’ March 14 earnings call.

The announcement of the new initiative followed weeks of coverage from major media outlets suggesting resort talent had not been a priority in the run-up to the 2021-22 season, along with word-of-mouth accounts of unfair labor practices which were being presented in court.

The reputation of an unattractive work environment was a problem for a company that was noticeably understaffed last season and will be looking to staff up before next season. At Vail Mountain, two of the resort’s “Seven Legendary Back Bowls” were not accessible via a lift as lift No. 22 never got up and running. The promise of a new training area on Vail’s former NASTAR course was spoiled, as well, as the area’s dedicated surface lift did not open as promised.

Vail Resorts saw a potential solution to the low staffing issue in its public relations push to announce a higher starting wage in March. The $20 per hour pay for new hires presents a response to the charge that the wages are low, and an enticing offer to those thinking about joining.

But it also leaves past employees feeling slighted.

Blaik Shew was one of the workers who attended an employee meeting in Beaver Creek this spring in which the new employee initiative was announced.

He said the message was “we know you’ve given us years and years, and some of you, decades, and we know you’re getting paid $20 an hour now, but even though you’ve taught skiing for 20 years, we’re going to try to find instructors that have never taught skiing, and we’re gonna pay them what you’re being paid now.”

Low offer

With new talent being recruited at wages it took the better part of a decade for some employees to reach, many feel the same way as Shew.

A way to compensate past employees for their loyal service could lie in a settlement being sought on behalf of more than 100,000 employees who have worked for Vail Resorts.

But the settlement instead accomplishes the opposite, Shew said.

“My settlement notice said I would receive $82,” he said. “The $82 is the equivalent to about one day of missing pay.”

An example of a day in which a Beaver Creek instructor like Shew would have to provide $82 more service than the company paid him for would probably start around 7:30 a.m. for a client who wants to meet at the Gondola in Vail at 8:29 a.m.

The texts and calls with the client would start that morning on Shew’s personal phone, for which he said he receives no stipend or reimbursement. The amended plan to meet in Vail, rather than Shew’s actual place of employment in Beaver Creek, will require more travel time and a 30-minute earlier lift load, which Shew said he will not be compensated for. Reimbursement for parking at Vail will not be provided, either.

Shew will be using his own quiver of skis, changing skis depending on the conditions, and all of those different pairs are quite expensive, part of a total gear purchase for which Shew receives no reimbursement. When a client breaks one of Shew’s poles trying to get up from a fall, nicks up Blaik’s skis by running over them with a freshly sharpened pair, forgets hand warmers, or uses Shew equipment and then neglects to return it, Shew is not reimbursed.

At the end of the day, when the client wants to take the last gondola up at 3:55 p.m., Shew said he will oblige despite the fact that he stopped getting paid at 3:30 p.m. They’ll get down some time after 4:30 p.m., and Shew will talk with the client and make suggestions on technique, gear and even restaurants for another 30 minutes, also unpaid.

And this is for a ski instructor who actually received a lesson that day.

During Vail Resorts’ June 17 court hearing for the labor lawsuit underway in California, Ohio instructor Bryan Griffith described a situation in which instructors wait around for hours, unpaid, on the chance that a walk-in client will want a lesson.

“Each shift is anywhere from four to seven hours, but of those seven hours, on many of those shifts I’d only get paid for one hour, the one single hour that I was in a lesson,” Griffith told the judge.

Vermont instructor Jon Johnson told “The Daily Digger” the same applies at Vail Resorts-owned Okemo, where he works part-time.

“We get paid 15 minutes to put on our gear and 20 minutes to take off our gear and do our timesheet at the end of the day, but the hours that you’re paid are only when you’re actually in a lesson,” Johnson said.

A similar situation has also been described in Park City, where Park City Mountain Resort employee Jill Adler maintains the website

“Think you should be paid while you stand around in your uniform waiting to be assigned a lesson? You usually aren’t,” Adler writes. “A snowboard instructor I met said, ‘This is bull—-,’ and walked off one day. He never came back.”

Expensive performance

In an interview with the Vail Daily, Adler said there’s a performative aspect of the job which goes unpaid, as well.

“If we showed up with skis that were 10 years old, they would not like that, because you’re a professional instructor and you’re supposed to have the top-of-the-line gear that helps sell it to their customers,” she said. “What other W2 job requires you to show up with thousands of dollars of equipment that you personally have to take care of and upkeep?”

Instructors are also expected to know about Vail Resorts’ other properties and offer to go there with them, if required, as part of a lifestyle that affords that kind of travel. But the employees aren’t paid enough to actually live the lifestyle they’re expected to portray, or reimbursed if they try, Adler said.

It’s part of a corporate strategy present in all big resorts, not just the Vail Resorts properties, Adler said.

“When I’ve had personal conversations with my managers, it’s not that they don’t want to help or don’t see the problem, they’re like, ‘our hands our tied, we can’t do anything,'” she said. “It’s a corporate strategy … and nobody has questioned it until now.”

Adler said the $20 per hour starting wage is coming several years too late, and if the settlement is accepted in the labor lawsuit, which does not require Vail to admit any wrongdoing “then they can continue,” Adler said. “But there’s no change, nothing is different.”

Adler said, just like in Beaver Creek, the announcement that new hires will receive $20 was received with skepticism in Park City by the company’s long-time employees.

There’s a disconnect between Lynch’s claim that the company is making resort talent its strategic priority, and Vail Resorts’ efforts to squash its lawsuit without paying a meaningful settlement or admitting any wrongdoing, Adler said.

“If you come to work dressed in your uniform, you deserve to be paid for the time you’re there,” Adler said. “So offering $20 bucks an hour when you’re still not paying for all hours worked is ridiculous.”

A final approval hearing for Vail Resorts’ current settlement effort is scheduled for Friday in South Lake Tahoe, California.

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