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The Park City Mountain Resort ski patrol union says front-loaded sick pay is a priority for next contract

Park City ski patrollers say they’re negotiating with Vail Resorts on their next contract, with the current deal set to expire Nov. 14. The union president says a key goal is to improve sick pay policies, including making sick pay available immediately to new employees.
Park Record file photo

Even if it’s technically still summer, Tuesday’s windstorm and the season’s first tentative flakes might have brought winter thoughts to the front of mind for the area’s snowsport enthusiasts, many of whom may be wondering what the ski season will look like amid the pandemic.

For ski patrollers at Park City Mountain Resort, that curiosity has an increased level of urgency with the Nov. 14 expiration of their employment contract with Vail Resorts looming.

Joe Naunchik, the president of the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association, said the union has already met three times with representatives of Vail Resorts, which owns PCMR, and the two sides have two more meetings scheduled this month.

A Vail Resorts representative did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the negotiations.

The contracts have typically lasted two years, though the union would prefer the stability of a longer-term agreement. The last deal was struck in January 2019, months after the previous one had expired.

Vail Resorts has opposed unionization in the past, and the process to establish a union was rocky after PCMR merged with then-Canyons Resort in 2015.

The contract covers roughly 200 employees including ski patrollers and mountain safety personnel, and Naunchik characterized the negotiations thus far as “amicable.”

Naunchik said the highest priorities in this round of negotiations are safety precautions and improved sick leave policies, but the underlying goal of negotiations is for ski patrollers to be seen as partners and professional first responders rather than seasonal employees.

“Being a ski patroller, it’s a sense of identity,” he said in an interview Monday. “We feel we should be compensated as the professionals that we are to begin with, and then adding the risk that we’re taking on top of that, we definitely feel that Vail should compensate us fairly.”

He didn’t mention compensation as a priority, though contracts typically include wage increases. Instead, he said securing improved sick-leave policies, including securing sick pay for new employees, is the first priority.

“It’s very important to incentivize employees, not just patrollers, to stay home if sick,” he said. “The way the system is now, when you can’t take sick time for two years, you incentivize the lowest-paid employees in an industry that’s not highly paid anyway to come to work.”

According to the 2020 Vail Resorts employee guide for Utah, full-time seasonal employees are not eligible for sick time until they’ve worked 1,500 hours, which is 37.5 weeks at 40 hours per week. A seasonal employee wouldn’t hit that number until the end of their second season, while Naunchik said he wants sick leave to be front-loaded.

“We need to incentivize these people not to come to work if they’re sick,” he said, adding that a person shouldn’t have to risk their paycheck if they have a cold.

Naunchik said he hadn’t heard more about Vail Resorts’ preparations for dealing with COVID-19 than what was included in a late-August open letter from CEO Rob Katz.

Those plans included capping the number of skiers on the mountain, implementing social distancing guidelines between groups and mandating face coverings in common areas like lift lines.

“I think they can do better,” Naunchik said, highlighting the steps taken by other large corporate entities, like McDonald’s partnering with the Mayo Clinic to revise its safety protocols.

Social distancing isn’t always possible for ski patrollers, Naunchik said, as their job sometimes requires them to come into close face-to-face contact with ill or injured visitors.

“It’s next to impossible (to distance) … if I have to put a cervical collar on someone that’s injured their spine,” he said. “How do we know the person that has altitude sickness doesn’t have COVID? They present the same way — the loss of breath, the feeling sick. We don’t have a choice. We have to take our precautions.”

Naunchik was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year and said he didn’t know what he would have done if it had happened during the ski season. He was effectively debilitated by weakness and fatigue for six weeks and has lingering symptoms months later.

“I don’t want to see anyone sick. I’ve been sick, it’s frightening. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and I was considered a mild case,” he said. “… (The) best case scenario for this season will be that we’re able to implement safety standards; the resort incentivizes sick employees to stay home and not potentially spread the virus; and that we’re able to keep ourselves, our customers, our community safe this winter and make it to April with no serious human toll from this pandemic.”


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