Working in the new West: Vail’s economic past, present creates an interesting case study for towns planning their future |

Working in the new West: Vail’s economic past, present creates an interesting case study for towns planning their future

Vail Resorts has seen a slew of employee complaints in recent years, leading to Fair Labor Standards Act violation accusations in court. Without acknowledging the issues, the company has quietly corrected some of the situations which have caused the claims, like unpaid hours or overtime for mountain workers.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

In the new West, outdoor recreation-based economies are often the answer to what will become of places where the current economy is based on fossil fuel extraction.

Vail is a singular case study because here, unlike most other outdoor recreation towns, there was no economy to speak of before the existence of chairlifts. There was no small town that the lifts and trails would later be built around, as is the case with most others.

So in that way, the town of Vail is among the most successful examples of the growth, from scratch, of an outdoor recreation economy in the United States.

Vail Founder Pete Seibert gets in a few powder runs during the 1962-63 ski season, Vail’s first season. A town eventually grew around the ski resort, which was created in an undeveloped portion of the Gore Creek Valley during the summer of 1962.
Roger Brown | Special to the Daily

That success helped lead to Vail Resorts, the offspring of the original Vail Associates, becoming the first ski resort business to be publicly traded on Wall Street. Now a multinational corporation, Vail Resorts has a duty to provide profits to shareholders.

As a result of becoming a publicly-traded corporation, Vail Resorts has been able to raise large amounts of capital for development projects within and adjacent to the White River National Forest in Eagle County, making the area more attractive to tourists as a recreation destination. Beaver Creek, founded by Vail in 1980, is an excellent example of this as Vail’s founders’ long-term goals (connecting Arrowhead ski area to Beaver Creek via the development of Bachelor Gulch) were able to be realized only after Vail was acquired by Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm, in 1992.

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The local economy thrived following all of the recreation development, with plenty of profits to be reaped. In addition to recreation, businesses surrounding real estate, medical services, food service, hotels and property rentals flourished, and those earning good wages in those industries did well and were able to make it in the valley. For longtime locals, everyone knows someone who was able to buy a house, start a family and dream about retirement.

But as Vail Resorts was growing, it was also identifying efficiencies, consolidating services, buying area businesses and increasing its profit margins. Employee retention suffered as new faces started coming and going every season. The result is a loss lamented by locals today — what you might hear called a loss of “the good jobs,” the positions where the paycheck covered the lifestyle. Just as everyone knows someone who made it, everyone also knows someone who was ejected from the top of the company, their job eliminated or replaced by a lower-paying position.

In the areas where a dedication to the lifestyle (and a willingness to supply one’s own gear for the job) was once commonplace, employees began to feel like they were being taken advantage of by those looking to increase profit margins.

Beaver Creek workers greet guests during the 2022-23 season.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

The late stages of this process are where Vail has become a most interesting case study. Over the course of the last year, Vail Resorts has had to fend off accusations of labor malpractice, public relations challenges, environmental mishaps, and consumer complaints. At the core of the problems is a theme, the fact that good help is hard to find in the ski town, and that’s because workers have a hard time making it. Employees are speaking out; a more than $100 million lawsuit alleging federal labor standards violations seeks to challenge some of the company’s practices which have created the efficiencies and profit margins currently being touted in shareholder meetings.

And in stepping back, it gets us to the central question of a changing West — should the creation of an outdoor recreation hub be a viable solution for economies forced to pivot away from fossil fuel industries? Or is outdoor recreation, when taken to its extreme, just another form of extraction?

Skiing within the margins

Karen Shupe graduated from West High School in Denver in 1968 and earned her bachelor’s degree from Colorado College in 1971.

She worked as a claims representative for the Social Security Administration early in her career before going on to work in human resources for the Federal Aviation Administration. While working for the FAA, she also become a Beaver Creek ski instructor and has become motivated to speak out against what she has seen from Vail Resorts, on behalf of her colleagues “who try to maintain a family on instructor’s pay,” she said in a court declaration filed in August in a case moving through the District Court system in Colorado.

“Vail Resorts’ profits are derived from the failure to pay hourly employees for all the hours they actually work,” Shupe said.

Shupe’s complaint is based on her years of observing the company’s pay practices. She said Beaver Creek employees would routinely arrive at the parking lot at 7:30 a.m. to give themselves enough time to board the bus, put on their uniform in the locker room, greet the guests, and arrive at the morning meeting by 8:50 a.m. On a normal day, Shupe said she would not depart the bus at the employee parking lot until 5 to 5:15 p.m., yet she was paid only “for the on-snow teaching time of 9 to 3:30 p.m. or 6.5 hours regardless of the time I set working before or after my ‘shift,'” she said.

Returning guests to Arrowhead, taking the bus back to the base of Beaver Creek, completing the report cards, taking off uniform and boots, tuning skis, none of it was compensated, Shupe said.

It goes back to the cultural roots of the sport, the fact that ski towns like Vail were born out of the workers’ desire to be there. The instructors showed up early and stayed late, using their own equipment. They gladly accepted whatever pay was offered just to be in the ski town as it was growing. That attitude made the ski industry what it is today, but it is also problematic in a mature and industrialized outdoor recreation economy. When the company’s profits are being touted on Wall Street, complaints like Shupe’s start to arise.

“Vail takes advantage of instructors’ enjoyment and passion for the sport and their willingness to do whatever it takes to teach and please their guests,” Shupe said in her August complaint.

Six weeks later, Vail Resorts CFO Michael Barkin, who plans to step down at the end of this year, told analysts Vail Resorts is a company that has become more profitable over time. 

“(Vail Resorts has) shown a strong ability, through price and growth and cost discipline, to expand margins over time,” Barkin said. “And we’ll absolutely continue to focus on that going forward.”

Workers and beginner skiers at Beaver Creek ski area on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Shupe’s declaration followed months of litigation in another labor case against Vail Resorts which she opted out of. In that case, a $13.1 settlement approved by a California District Court judge is currently being appealed. That case involves Vail Resorts workers from California and 15 other states. Meanwhile, for Shupe and others who opted out of that settlement, a second case is moving through the U.S. District Court system in Colorado, awaiting the results of an effort to certify another large class of Vail Resorts workers across several states. That case is seeking damages of more than $100 million for the class of workers.

“Vail Resorts is, and has always been, committed to treating its employees fairly and in compliance with all applicable laws,” wrote Jamie Alvarez, director of corporate communications for Vail Resorts, in a statement to the Vail Daily on behalf of the company last year.

Norman Bowles served in the White House during the Clinton Administration as a team leader on the Vice President’s Task Force on Reinventing Government. From 1996 to 2003, he was director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Logistic Center. He started teaching as a part-time ski instructor in December of 2003 at Beaver Creek, and has taught every season since.

In Bowles’ more than 25 years of high-level management experience, daily dealings with unions and labor issues, and 10 years of extensive labor management experience, he said he has never seen a more blatant example of exploitation of human capital than he has witnessed at Vail Resorts.

“In my career, I had to deal with many labor-management issues,” Bowles said in his August declaration. “I have a reasonable understanding of what constitutes a reasonable labor-management relationship. Never have I seen a company be so blatant in its disregard for the needs of employees, nor so open in its exploitation of its human capital in order to maximize profits.”

Lauren Cisneros started working for Beaver Creek for $12 per hour in 2016. Since then, she has been able to work her way up to a $21.50 wage. She mainly teaches adaptive lessons to guests with special needs, which requires a great deal of training.

“Training in Vail Resorts is optional and on our own time,” she said in her August declaration. “We aren’t compensated for training or even covered under workman’s compensation if something went wrong.”

Cisneros said during the 2021-22 season, she had to monitor her pay to make sure no errors were made, “and with every single pay stub, I found an error,” she said in her declaration. “I was often missing between $100 to $800 in pay each paycheck.”

A cat driver moves snow at Beaver Creek during the 2022-23 season.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Union efforts

The effort to call out federal labor standards act violations in Beaver Creek was born out of the effort to unionize ski instructors there in 2015.

Full-time instructors, a group of 288 people, received enough signatures to prompt a hearing on the matter, but Vail Resorts’ attorneys argued that part-time instructors, a group of about 470 people, also should have been included in the group. The National Labor Relations Board agreed, leaving organizers with only two business days to get enough signatures from the part-time instructors.

“We had a 48-hour window — the logistics would have been impossible,” Al Kogler, the administrative director of organizing for Communications Workers of America, told the Vail Daily in 2016.

Former Beaver Creek ski instructor Doug McMurrain traces a straight line from the fallout of the union effort to the Fair Labor Standards Act violations being lodged against the company today. McMurrain, a real estate developer who started ski instructing as a way to get away from the stress of his other career, said after those union meetings, Vail Resorts’ then-CEO Rob Katz visited the Beaver Creek instructors in an effort to smooth things over, but only made things worse.

“He came up and talked to probably about 30 or 40 of us in a room, and all he did was talk about himself,” McMurrain said. “I’m a CEO, there are other guys in there who are ex-executives and stuff, and he’s treating us like a bunch of kids.”

Of course, in addition to people like McMurrain who recognize labor law issues when they see them, there were people who — like a bunch of kids — aren’t able to recognize those issues when they see them, or call them out if they do.

“They just take advantage of all these young people,” McMurrain said of Vail Resorts. “They dole these perks out like they’re gold.”

Eventually, McMurrain and others had enough.

“I got sick and tired of it,” he said. “When I would tell people I made $65, and they paid $1,000, they would look at me and say, ‘Are you serious?’ And words like ‘criminal’ would come out of their mouth. Or ‘that’s obscene.'”

Ticket scanners on the job at Beaver Creek this season. The ticket scanner position requires long hours on your feet, as well as a good demeanor in greeting guests.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

The lawsuit which would follow includes more than just ski instructors. Among the named plaintiffs is former Beaver Creek ticket scanner Mark Molina, who issued a declaration saying all employees like him, who had to take a Vail Resorts bus up to their post at 7 a.m., and didn’t get back to the parking lot until 5 p.m., should be considered part of the class which is allowed to sue Vail Resorts, as they were only paid from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“Vail Resorts hires thousands of seasonal, hourly employees a year,” Molina said in his declaration for class certification. “Thousands of non-exempt employees would come within the scope of the Class definition, that is employees who were only paid for their shift time and therefore, by definition, were not paid for any pre-shift or post-shift work like donning and doffing required uniforms and equipment.”

While the effort to unionize in Beaver Creek failed, a nearby effort to unionize ski patrollers in Breckenridge was successful in 2021.

Ryan Anderson, an eight-year Breckenridge ski patroller who helped lead the effort, told the Summit Daily News in 2021 that patrollers started having conversations about unionizing because they said Vail Resorts was not treating the patrollers as professional first responders.

“I do hope that many more patrols can join us in making this move because, as an industry, there are many things that can be changed to make our workplaces safer and have a career path in a wonderful profession,” Anderson said.

Breckenridge ski patrol celebrated unionization in 2021.
Louie Traub / Special to the Daily |

Ryan Dineen, the current president of the Breckenridge Professional Ski Patrol Union, said he hopes the union will help foster employee retention, which goes hand in hand with safety.

With a proper union contract, workers have “a clear and precise road, that a first-year worker can see, where if I stick around X number of years, I will get to this level,” Dineen said. “Making that concrete is a huge piece of retention, and knowing that you don’t have to become a supervisor, necessarily, or get involved in the management of people in order to reach a sustainable living, in the long-term, for a mountain town.”

This improves safety on the job, Dineen said, as institutional knowledge in an uncontrolled work environment can be key in avoiding the repetition of incidents, and the mentorship of an experienced co-worker is how that institutional knowledge is often passed down.

“Education is important, and of course going and getting (avalanche safety certification), or going and taking a course is always valuable, but it’s through mentorship that you instill that knowledge and make it workable in the conditions you face on a day to day basis,” Dineen said. “Not only does this help save the lives of our guests, but it saves the lives, and prolongs the careers through the avoidance of injuries, of our coworkers.”

A Vail ski patroller points out the slow zones at Mid-Vail.
Chris Dillmann | |

Institutional knowledge

Marty Odom was horrified to see history repeat itself in 2020, in a death that he feels could have been prevented with the institutional knowledge lost in a high-turnover environment.

Back in the start of the 2008-09 season, Odom got a job for Sharpshooter, a now-defunct photography service that contracted with Vail Resorts to take photos of guests on the mountain. He began the season excited about his new job prospects.

But Odom didn’t last long as an on-mountain photographer.

On Jan. 1, 2009, Odom captured an image best remembered by the pithy headline attached to it: “Skier suffers exposure.” A skier attempting to board the Skyline Express lift in Blue Sky Basin had fallen through the space where the seat was supposed to be after the foldable bench had been blown up against the seatback in a gust of wind. As the seatless chair approached the terminal, the skier sat down and fell through the chair as it began its ascent up the mountain. The skier’s pants caught the lift as he fell upside down through the chair, and with the waistline of the pants caught on the lift, gravity pulled the pants up around his ankles as he dangled upside down. His genitals were exposed to Odom and the rest of the onlookers.

One memory that stuck with Odom from the incident was that there was no obvious plan for how to remove the man who was hanging from the lift.

“They were standing underneath the lift, and they were tying a rope to a pair of gloves, and they were trying to throw that up to the guy dangling,” Odom said. “They were trying and trying and he’s trying to grab the rope and with every swing, he’s just getting more and more tired, I could see his arms just aren’t even moving anymore.”

Odom said he didn’t know how the rope could help the man even if he did catch it.

“(There was) a lot of radio-ing back and forth, back and forth, and finally they got the lift to creep backwards,” Odom said.

Odom snapped a photo that leaked to the press; he was subsequently let go from Sharpshooters.

He said that wasn’t a surprising outcome, given the fact that he later learned anything he shot while on the mountain, regardless of whether he used Sharpshooter’s equipment or not, belonged to Vail Resorts. Commenting on the fact that the photo was released to the press and he was fired: “I’m at fault, I’m not denying that,” Odom said. The surprising outcome, to him, is that history was able to repeat itself on Skyline Express in an even worse fashion.

On Feb. 13, 2020, skier Jason Varnish also encountered a chair on Skyline Express on which the seat also had been blown up against the seatback, and Varnish also managed to slip through the area where the seat was supposed to be. But for Varnish, it wasn’t his pants that got caught, it was his jacket.

“The coat ended up going up around his head and neck area putting his neck in a position that compromised his airway,” said Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis.

Varnish, 46, a father of three, died of positional asphyxia while waiting for someone to reverse the lift.

The incident angers Odom.

“How does this keep happening?” Odom said. “Where is the awareness of anyone? I understand accidents happen in any field, or sport, or anything, but there are definitely things that could be avoided, with just a little precaution, and just being aware.”

In trying to find a new job in January of 2009, Odom said he learned he had been blacklisted from working for Vail Resorts.

“Back then, all jobs were taken by then,” Odom said, in reference to the tight job market in Vail following the 2008 economic crash. “I walked around town for a few weeks, looking for a job, and when I found out I was really blacklisted was when a buddy at the (Vail Resorts owned) Tavern on the Square tried getting me a serving job there, and I went through the orientation, got my locker, got my uniform, and the day I was supposed to show up for work I got a call like ‘Yeah, no, you can’t come here,'” Odom said.

At first, Odom thought he’d never last in Vail without being able to work for Vail Resorts. But over the years, he’s come to have a different view.

“It was a blessing in disguise, being blacklisted” Odom said. “Just knowing friends over the last 20 years that have worked for VR here and in Breckenridge and other places, it is just non-stop trickery, constantly getting hours wrong on paychecks, constantly getting stuff wrong on passes, schedules, and work, it seems like literally the worst company to work for.”

Extraction economy

Unlike the tight job market Odom found in 2009, today jobs are plentiful in the outdoor recreation industry. The staffing challenges faced by the industry have created opportunities for labor movements across the country, and those labor movements have seen opposition arise in surprising places.

“REI Wants You to Know They Are Busting a Union on Indigenous Land,” a Jacobin piece published in February, offers an examination of the absurdity of a progressive outdoor gear company issuing a land acknowledgment before trying to convince employees not to form a union.

“What I find maddening, but entirely unsurprising, is that these efforts to unionize have been met with foot-dragging, dissuasion, and union-busting rhetoric by the very companies that otherwise seek to position themselves as being very progressive workplaces,” wrote Andrew Bisharat, a Colorado climber who used to write for Rock and Ice Magazine.

The REI flagship store is shown Friday, March 2, 2018, in Seattle. The company received criticism in 2022 for attempting to talk employees out of unionizing.
AP photo

For economies in the West seeking solutions to the question of how they will pivot away from the profits of fossil fuel extraction, the progressivism of the outdoor industry is alluring. But despite its progressive veneer, the outdoor recreation industry can also be an extractive industry in its own way, Dineen, the ski patroller, said.

“We are extracting capital and wealth out of these mountains by paying people as little money as possible,” Dineen said.

Odom said in living through the changes which have occurred in the Vail area over the last 20 years, anyone hoping to pivot the economy of their town into outdoor recreation would be wise to set up some boundaries first.

“Way beforehand, set up some kind of rules and regulations,” Odom said. “Things that keep the money around, and reinvested into your local area.”

Making adjustments

Without a union to set up the rules and regulations Odom eluded to, workers are forced to speak out as individuals and hope that the company takes on changes without collective pressure. 

But for a publicly traded company, pressure can come from other places, as well. In February, Wall Street analysts suggested Vail Resorts might have to raise its wages. In March, the company announced a new initiative to pay employees a $20 per hour minimum. 

The company has also upped wages for existing employees; experienced hourly employees received a wage increase this year through a process called wage compression, said Vail and Beaver Creek spokesperson John Plack. Vail Resorts CEO Kirstin Lynch said summer hiring went well and Vail Resorts was fully staffed at their mountains for summer operations during 2022.

Vail Resorts now begins the 2022-23 ski season following a brutal public relations bout during 2021-22, where frustrations with lift lines and lack of terrain openings made national news. At Stevens Pass, the complaints got so bad that credits were offered for season passes purchased this year. In Vail, at the company’s namesake mountain, two of the seven legendary Back Bowls never saw lift service. 

A person in a chicken suit calls for more terrain to open on Vail Mountain on Tuesday, as the resort eclipsed 90 inches of snow for the season. In 2018-19, Vail Mountain’s Blue Sky Basin opened in November after 71 inches of snow had fallen.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

This year, skiers again wait for lifts to open amid the best early-season snow conditions the resort has seen in years, leaving some to wonder if a repeat of last year is in store. Vail has already recorded 96 inches of cumulative snow, yet has not opened the Back Bowls or Blue Sky Basin, when, in 2018, those areas were open by the end of November following 70 inches of cumulative snow. 

Last season, Vail Resorts said it was caught off-guard by the staffing challenges and Lynch said the company will be focusing on making talent a strategic priority moving forward. Employees have said that while no formal policy change or acknowledgment of the issues that have led to the lawsuits has been made from Lynch or those at the top of the company, lower-level managers have begun to quietly implement changes to avoid similar lawsuits in the future. The days of arriving at the shuttle at 7 a.m. and working until 5 p.m., while only getting paid from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., now seem to be the exception, rather than the rule, according to current employees. It’s one more change in a sweeping effort to make Vail Resorts a more attractive place to work in general, part of Lynch’s new direction to make employees a strategic priority. 

One of the additional perks that the company announced as a part of Lynch’s new direction is a 40% discount across Vail Resorts Retail which started for employees in October. 

“This discount applies to 250+ Vail Resorts Retail locations, including branded stores like Patagonia, Burton, The North Face, Salomon, and more,” said Vail Mountain spokesperson John Plack. “This new discount is in addition to the current pro deals and gear discounts from our strategic partners.”

Working for the company can also help families combat the rising cost of lessons. Vail’s DEVO program, which is designed to teach kids to ski through weekly lessons, has seen a dramatic cost increase over the last decade, rising from $950 for 14 lessons during the 2010s to $1029 for seven lessons this season. Families who work for Vail Resorts also receive 35% off kid’s lessons, Plack said.

And while there has been intense public criticism of the company’s effort to construct high-density housing in bighorn sheep habitat miles from chairlifts, saying the work is misguided, it is part of a goal to create more housing in the Vail area, something most agree is crucial in maintaining the area’s status as a desirable outdoor recreation destination. The consequences of Vail Resorts’ efforts in East Vail have thus far been positive in terms of total beds available for workers near the lifts. The threat to the bighorn sheep habitat spurred the town of Vail to construct 72 one- and two-bedroom apartments on a piece of town-owned land near the Main Vail roundabout in 2023. The project, known as the Residences at Main Vail, was intended to be a bargaining chip in dissuading Vail Resorts to build in the bighorn sheep habitat in East Vail, but has so far been unsuccessful in that regard. 

A herd of bighorn sheep has been at the center of the debate over the future of a parcel in East Vail.
Rick Spitzer/For the Vail Daily

Critics of the plan to build in the bighorn sheep habitat say there’s plenty of places closer to the lifts, including a potential redevelopment known as Ever Vail involving Vail Resorts-owned property between the resort’s Lionshead and Cascade villages. Building housing there will be more expensive than the East Vail location, but it will be a better location for workers, say redevelopment proponents. Critics of the efforts to build in East Vail say the plan goes against Vail Resorts’ corporate goal of having zero net impact on wildlife habitat. 

But those critics were few compared to the overwhelming criticism of the long lines and closed terrain which came last season amid Vail’s staffing shortages, forcing former CEO Rob Katz to step in and defend the business model of selling reduced-price season passes before the season begins. 

“What troubles me is this anti-growth narrative that’s out there in this sport right now,” Katz said in May at the National Ski Areas Association’s annual convention. “There’s too many people on the mountain.”

Katz said the problem is not the number of people on the mountain, as the sport of skiing has grown “barely one percent over 15 years.”

“So you might say, well, if we didn’t really grow this year, why was this narrative out there?” Katz said. “And I do think the narrative is out there because yeah, we did have some staffing challenges this year, for sure. Our company absolutely did, and we have to own those issues. And I personally own those issues from this year. I’m the one who set up this season for our company, but the response to that is to address them, right? Fix those issues, invest in wages, invest in housing, make sure we have this staffing.”

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