(UPDATED) ‘Not on strike just practicing.’ Ski patrollers, locked in negotiations with Vail Resorts, picket at PCMR.

Salary increase, health benefits top list of union’s requests

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from Vail Resorts.

Drivers leaving the dropoff site at Park City Mountain Resort Saturday morning craned their necks to read the picket signs held by a group of Park City ski patrollers standing on the sidewalk, a demonstration aimed at gaining community support for the union as it remains locked in contract negotiations with PCMR owner Vail Resorts.

Some skiers lurching by in ski boots offered encouragement while others politely declined the patrollers’ offers for more information. Several resort employees paused and chatted with the picketers, the conversations appearing amiable.

The Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association says Vail Resorts has bogged down contract negotiations, refused federal mediation and that patrollers have been operating without a contract since the first of the year.

The patrollers’ main requests are a salary increase and better sick leave benefits, said Joe Naunchik, the union president.

But Naunchik indicated the union is seeking a larger goal: for Vail Resorts to recognize ski patrolling as a full-time career deserving of the same respect — and salaries and benefits — given to those who staff the multinational ski company’s corporate headquarters in Broomfield, Colorado.

“We want a fair contract, one that recognizes patrollers as professionals, and (one) where we’re not treated as second-class employees just because we’re seasonal,” Naunchik said in a recent interview.

A PCMR spokesperson wrote in a prepared statement to The Park Record that the resort values the views of all its employees, including ski patrollers.

“We have been, and continue to be, committed to bargaining in good faith with the patrol’s union,” said Jessica Miller, Vail Resorts senior communications manager.

The previous two-year employment contract lapsed on Nov. 15. The union and Vail Resorts agreed to an indefinite extension until they could negotiate a replacement, Naunchik said, but the patrollers chose to opt out of that extension after the company denied their request for federal mediation.

The 200 employees covered by the contract, including patrollers and mountain safety personnel, have been operating without an agreement since Jan. 1.

They’re still getting paid and receiving health benefits, but they are no longer obligated not to strike. Similarly, Vail Resorts could lock the employees out if it chooses.

Miller wrote that it seemed “short-sighted and counter-productive” for the union to unilaterally terminate its contract.

Vail Resorts has opposed unionization in the past, and the process for the patrollers to establish a union after PCMR in 2015 merged with then-Canyons Resort, which was unionized, was rocky, hinging on only a few votes.

On the sidewalk outside the resort’s main entrance Saturday, patrollers held signs saying, “Not on strike just practicing,” and referred to the gathering as an educational rally.

Alex Quintana, left, chats with David Engel about a few of the demands of the Park City Professional Ski Patrollers during a demonstration along Lowell Avenue Saturday morning, Jan. 16, 2021. A few of the demands of the group include adequate sick time and hazard pay. (Tanzi Propst/Park Record)

Naunchik indicated support for the union among patrollers is strong now and that many of the benefits it brings were made more evident by the pandemic.

“We didn’t have any trouble finding people to volunteer on their days off at 8 in the morning,” he said.

He said morale was as low as he’d seen it among employees, many of whom are now tasked with enforcing a mask mandate and interacting with guests who can become irate if told to cover their face.

“We’ve had at least one customer who knowingly had a positive test result, came skiing anyway, got hurt and had to get treated by patrol,” he said.

Patrollers were recognized as first responders and have been receiving vaccinations against COVID-19, with some scheduled for their second doses at the end of this month.

Naunchik indicated the pay raise was warranted as patrollers and other staff members are taking increased risk during the pandemic.

The resort said its employees receive “very competitive” wages and benefits.

“The union has asked for a retroactive wage increase in the middle of one of the most challenging financial situations the entire travel sector has ever faced and when no other employee across our entire company has received an inflationary increase,” Miller said in the statement.

Melinda Behum has been a patroller for six years. Pausing to take a sip of coffee, her picket signs leaning against her arm, she said working without a contract has “absolutely” added stress to a season already fraught with unique challenges.

“We’re not being treated in the way we deserve, with respect and professionalism, by the company,” she said.

She added that being a ski patroller is a hard job that takes a toll on her body. She said a rookie patroller will earn $13.50 an hour and not be eligible for sick leave until they’ve worked 1,500 hours, something that might not happen until near the end of their third season.

Naunchik estimated the average patroller earns $15 an hour and said that making sick leave available on every employee’s first day is a high priority for the union.

He said everyone should be able to take a paid day off work if they’re sick, especially during a pandemic.

Miller said the union is asking for wholesale changes to how the company provides benefits to seasonal employees, policies that have been in place for decades, and ones that would take time to alter.

The Park City patrollers were demonstrating in solidarity with a fledgling union at Stevens Pass Resort in Washington state, which voted to unionize in April 2019 and has yet to sign its first contract with Vail Resorts.

Naunchik said he believed Saturday’s demonstration was this union’s first such action in more than 15 years.

“As far as I know, in 2005, the old Canyons patrol was locked out,” Naunchik said. “They had taken a strike authorization vote and (the American Ski Company) at the time locked them out.”

Kyle Gronset, another patroller on the picket line, said it is a scary time to be working without a contract, especially in a right-to-work state like Utah.

He said he’d seen a couple of his supervisors walk by that morning but that he’d received a mix of curiosity and positive feedback.

Naunchik said they were advocating for a starting pay raise, increases to raises for employees and access to disability insurance, in addition to day-to-day concerns like guaranteed on-site parking and uniforms that are waterproof and breathable.

Naunchik said he wished the union could also bargain for benefits for other employees like lift operators who interact so often with guests.

“The ski companies seem to rely on the fact that people enjoy their jobs so they’ll do it for less,” he said. “… They don’t seem to treat seasonal employees as real employees.”

Miller said Vail Resorts remains “very committed” to bargaining in good faith.

“We know our patrollers share our commitment to avoid any added disruptions that would make things more difficult for our employees or our guests,” Miller wrote.

The next round of talks is scheduled for Jan. 20.

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