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September 01, 2006

Wages, Housing, and the Ski Industry

The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps numbers on things like the wages and salaries of Lifeguards, Ski Patrol, and other recreational workers.

Employment estimate and mean wage estimates for this occupation:

Employment (1) Employment
RSE (3)
Mean hourly
Mean annual
wage (2)
Wage RSE (3)
107,620 2.5 % $8.67 $18,020 0.7 %

Percentile wage estimates for this occupation:

Percentile 10% 25% 50%
75% 90%
Hourly Wage $6.11 $7.03 $8.13 $9.83 $11.92
Annual Wage $12,720 $14,610 $16,910 $20,450 $24,790

This is really saying something about the industry. First, most of the positions have no benefits. Second, the pay is absolutely astonishing. Only 10% of workers in the broad job category make more than $12 per hour. 90% make less than $12 per hour.

I bring this up because we have our annual debate on our road trips about the role of Walmart in America. It is a favorite topic because we usually argue politics on our journeys. I am disgusted by the way the ski industry treats their employees. First, there is almost no affordable housing. This study is from Mammoth Mountain:

At Mammoth Mountain’s prevailing entry-level wage ($8.40 an hour), an employee working full-time would earn $1,344 a month, and could afford to pay $403 for housing; this is in the very low-income (VLI) range. However, due to the seasonal nature of the business, it is not always certain that an employee will accrue forty hours a week, or work five days. Therefore, a seasonal employee’s earnings are likely to be less than $1,300 a month. Furthermore, only one-fifth of Mammoth Mountain’s 2,500 employees work year-round.

Increasingly, jobs in the service sector are being filled by immigrants, both documented and undocumented. However, they seldom live in employee housing, and instead must commute great distances. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area has about 500 employee apartments; according to Duhigg, a three-bedroom apartment goes for $650.

The impacts of rising housing costs in the face of wage stagnation cause “down valley” syndrome: workers can no longer afford to live in the communities in which they work, and are forced to commute long distances. Jeff Berman of Ski Areas Citizens Coalition says, “Many of these immigrants have to live over an hour away from where they work…. Subsidized housing is reserved for college students taking a winter off.” Affordable housing in Mono County can be found in outlying areas such as Antelope and Chalfant Valleys, where it is possible to purchase a lot, drill a well, and install a manufactured home for a fraction of the cost of purchasing a single-family home or condominium in Mammoth Lakes or other village areas. Others choose to live in Bishop and drive over forty miles each way up US 395 over the Sherman Summit (elev. 7000), making for a harrowing and lengthy commute in inclement weather.

A couple of my good friends absolutely, steadfastly refuse to so much as set foot into a Walmart, yet will participate in travelling to ski resorts where the employees are treated far worse than Walmart could ever imagine by companies like Mammoth Mountain:

Mammoth Mountain, CA. December 21, 2005 - Dave McCoy, Founder and controlling shareholder of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area ("Mammoth Mountain") announced today that an affiliate of Starwood Capital Group Global, L.L.C. (Starwood Capital) has completed the purchase of the majority interest in Mammoth Mountain Ski Area for $365 million. Rusty Gregory, who has worked for McCoy for 29 years, will continue as chairman and chief executive officer and will hold a 12.5 per cent interest in the company. Intrawest Corporation (NYSE: IDR; TSX: ITW) ("Intrawest") will retain a 15 per cent interest in Mammoth Mountain.

I don't want to beat up on this point, but it is important that we recognize that the folks that work at our resorts make next to nothing and can barely afford to rent an apartment. I know it is cool to hate Walmart now days, but we are talking about an almost $400M business that pays their people $8 an hour to work at the resort, and my friends have no problem skiing there, but think they are making a social statement by boycotting Walmart.

I believe that wages are dictated by the working environment and by the market. If kids weren't lining up to work low wage jobs at the mountain so that they could ski everyday, resorts would have to pay more money. Instead, many of these resorts set wages at well below poverty level and still find plenty of takers.

The entire industry is catering to the wealthy. That is why a set of skis and bindings can run $1200 easily. Snowboards run as much as an average lift worker spends makes in two weeks. Worker's wages are at rock bottom and housing is sky high. And ironically, big corporations are getting wealthy off of the industry.

You hear about Vail supporting renewable energy and everyone trying to be "environmentally friendly". How about paying your workers enough to eat or buy a car or pay car insurance and health insurance and rent and food all at the same time. Maybe enough to afford new gear occasionally. You hear PC buzzwords and see nice donations from folks like Burton and flowery stories about how committed these folks are to helping the poor and homeless and saving owls and protecting the forest. But then you see how they treat their workers.

I am a free market capitalist and I am totally down with this behavior, but just don't crusade against corporations when you make your living off an industry that is about as capitalistic and borderline wrong as there is. Don't bash Walmart when Intrawest, American, and others pay worse wages. Hey, Jake, why don't you donate some money towards affordable housing for ski area employees or for crusading against the resort industry that makes them endentured servants working for a season pass.

Posted by Justin at September 1, 2006 04:37 PM



I disagree with you. These people who live in these areas, don't have their heart wrapped up in the almighty dollar. They love what they are doing, so making $12 an hour for them is living high on the hog. One man once said figure out what you love to do then learn how to make a living doing it.

Now, where it is going wrong is the skier who is willing to spend $80 a lift ticket, spend $25 for lunch then spend another 350 a night for a hotel room. That is wrong! If people wouldn't spend that kind of money for skiing then the resorts would be forced to lower their costs. Not much different from sports and the way athletes are paid. Plus, most of those kids working at the resorts are late teen early 20's and to them 12 an hour plus all the free skiing you want is worth it.

I am 30 and it almost sounds tempting.


Posted by: Jake Embleton at September 2, 2006 11:00 AM

If people wouldn't spend that kind of money for skiing then the resorts would be forced to lower their costs. Not much different from sports and the way athletes are paid. Plus, most of those kids working at the resorts are late teen early 20's and to them 12 an hour plus all the free skiing you want is worth it.

Spending $500 a day is totally fine too. Some people have that kind of money and skiing is also what they love to do. My point is not that the people with huge money are the problem. Not that wages and housing are the problem. Not that kids should make $50k a year to be ski bums. My point is that the entire industry caters to the wealthy and it is pricing people out of being able to ski, while simultaneously, those same people are the ones that it relies on as its workers. The only way that an average person can afford to ski (and by this I mean the median income family of 4 in this country that makes $50k per year for the entire family) is for them to work at a resort. That is the average income for a family of four in this country. Half of the households make $50k+ and half make less than that. Here is where you are wrong--when you say find what you love to do then figure out how to do it for a living, the point is that most people cannot even afford a single day to even try skiing. And the only way anyone that is not rich can afford to ski is to be an endentured servant to the resorts and work there.

I am not saying there is a single thing wrong with any of this. Charge whatever you want for a board and for lift tickets and for hotels and condos. That is how the system works. Just don't charge $500 for a board, $250 for bindings, and $250 for boots, sell jackets for upwards of $300, and make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the rich while pricing the sport you created out of reach of anyone but the rich--while simultaneously supporting Howard Dean and bashing Walmart. Live what you preach. Dean is out saying how the middle class are not able to enjoy the American Dream because of rising this prices and that prices, yet guys like Jake Burton and the ski industry are INTENTIONALLY PRICING THE MIDDLE CLASS OUT OF THE SPORT.

I don't see the social activism from Jake Burton, multi-millionaire, that I should. He is filthy rich off of a sport that by pricing alone intentionally keeps the poor from enjoying it. Sure, Burton has "Chill" that takes one hundred seventy inner city kids up to the mountain each from eight cities, but the program is underwritten by several other major sponsors. Jake Burton is not footing the bill. He is sole owner of a company that does $200M in gear sales per year running profit margins that we can all estimate are around 20%. He is worth several hundred million dollars.

This is what bothers me. Guys like Jake Burton and John Kerry head off to exclusive Idaho and Utah resorts to partake of a sport that no one but the super rich and the folks that throw away everything to chase jobs that pay $8 an hour can afford. Then they crusade about being for helping the poor. Burton flies all over the world in private jets to snowboard all year and spend his millions. And at the same time, Vail publishes an article about how they are now buying all their power with Environmentally friendly "wind credits".

Elitists in the big cities that hate Walmart laude Jake Burton and Vail and these other ski organizations. Jake Burton is such a good guy because he gives money to Howard Dean and has a relaxed work environment. Yet his industry is exactly the opposite of what social responsibility is about. But because he donates to the right causes and because Vail "cares about the environment" they get a free pass to not live up to "THEIR SOCIAL IDEALS", not mine.

I am in 100% agreement with you about the industry. Price points should be set by the resorts and they are in business to make money. People that work those jobs do it for a reason too. Who am I to tell these folks how to pay their workers? Who am I to tell some dumb kid not to drop out of college and work at a resort? But when Jake Burton is donating to Howard Dean,, and John Kerry and these folks tell us constantly about the middle class squeeze and how bad the economy is while simultaneously living like super rich off of a sport that intentionally prices itself out of reach of all but the upper middle class and pays its workers wages that they cannot even come close to affording to live off of, they are complete hypocrits.

Posted by: Justin B at September 2, 2006 12:26 PM