Why did the chicken cross the road in Summit County? To protest Vail Resorts
Passersby on U.S. Highway 6 in Keystone may have caught an unusual sight early Thursday morning: A 6-foot-tall chicken wielding a sign about J-1 visa employees who’ve been “mistreated or lied to” by Vail Resorts.
The person behind the beak, Avon resident Tim McMahon, has been demonstrating on or near Vail Resorts’ property with provocative signs for the past three years. In recent months, he’s opted to do so in a chicken costume to draw more attention to what he said is unfair treatment of employees and the community by Vail Resorts.
“They’re coming in and Disney-fying everything, charging as much as possible, packing it up as much as possible,” said McMahon, a former Vail Resorts employee who had worked for Beano’s Cabin at Beaver Creek Resort. “None of the returns are sitting around locally.”
In particular, McMahon said he was raising awareness of J-1 visas who he said have faced struggles securing housing and have seen their hours cut, making it difficult to contend with the area’s high cost of living. McMahon’s demonstration, his first in the Keystone area, comes after reporting by the Summit Daily News found that international student employees working for Keystone Resort on a J-1 visa received as little as six hours of work in a week.
Employees told the Summit Daily that they felt the hours — and pay — they were receiving was inadequate and had caused financial stress. Employees claimed they paid between $3,500 and $5,000 to work on a J-1, which included money spent on their visa and flights to the U.S.
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A copy of a job offer, provided to the Summit Daily by one J-1 employee, lists the job as having an average of 32 hours per week. Max Winter, a Keystone Resort spokesperson, stated in a past email that the company “does not have employee contracts” with a “guarantee of any certain number of hours.”
McMahon said he also took issue with the company promoting available housing to J-1 employees, only for them to face a mad-dash to secure their own accommodations. According to the job offer provided to the Summit Daily, Vail Resorts — which is listed as the employer — provides “limited housing.” Winter, in a previous email, stated: “J-1 students are required to secure their own housing and affirm via their sponsor agency that they have housing before arriving.”
Winter, in an emailed response to claims raised by McMahon’s protest, stated: “This season, the average number of weekly hours worked for J-1 employees has been consistent with the targeted average for our Summit County resorts, and has exceeded the targeted average at our Eagle County resorts.”
“While it’s normal to flex employee hours based on the needs of the business — which fluctuate every year and throughout the season — we recognize that more team members are experiencing it this season because we are fully staffed,” Winter continued. “We’re grateful for all of our team members and the important role they play in bringing our resorts to life each and every day.”
McMahon said he does not feel Vail Resorts has taken accountability for the issues he said it has caused workers and the community, adding that his demonstrations are a way to spark community dialogue about the multibillion-dollar corporation.
McMahon’s venture into sign-based activism began during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shut down of ski resorts. A sign placed by McMahon at Beaver Creek in March 2020, which was captured on a snowstake camera, criticized the company for giving employees 10 days to vacate their housing and stated then-CEO Robert Katz “must go.” McMahon, in an April 2020 interview with the Vail Daily, said it was that incident that caused him to lose his job at the resort.
Since then, McMahon has created and demonstrated with various signs taking aim at Vail Resorts’ practices. He currently faces two charges — a criminal tampering charge for his sign-posting at Beaver Creek and a trespassing charge for his demonstrations on Vail Resorts property earlier this season — according to reporting from the Vail Daily.
McMahon said he would not be deterred by the legal challenges and called his Keystone protest the “first of many.”
“A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, you hate Vail Resorts,’” McMahon said. “I really don’t hate Vail Resorts. Vail Resorts is the largest ski company in North America. If they did positive things, they could completely change the whole ski industry. But instead, they’re just concerned about their shareholders and their money.”