Patrons wait their turn for a chair on the lift at Stevens Pass on Thursday afternoon. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Patrons wait their turn for a chair on the lift at Stevens Pass on Thursday afternoon. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

At Stevens Pass, epic lines, not-so-epic times amid staff shortage

Skiers, snowboarders and employees blame owner Vail Resorts for a “dysfunctional” season. Management cites industry-wide issues.

STEVENS PASS — When the opening of Stevens Pass ski resort was delayed two weeks last month due to weather, lift operators were told they would get free groceries to help make up for their deferred income, according to one employee.

A few lifties got a $25 gift card to one of several grocery stores, most of which were more than an hour’s drive from the resort.

If that wasn’t enough of a perk, all of them got some food, too.

Inside each package was a box of cereal, oatmeal, a few single-serving plastic fruit cups, some potatoes, an onion or two, and a loaf of bread, the employee told The Daily Herald.

The meager ration marked the beginning of what was, in his words, “a (expletive)-show” of a start to the winter season on the snowy mountain, some 50 miles east of Everett on U.S. 2 in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests.

Since the resort opened on Dec. 15, skiers and snowboarders have found parking is a nightmare, lift lines are endless, more than half of the mountain is still closed, and only one lodge and a few restaurants are running, according to interviews with season pass holders and employees.

“I didn’t expect it to be this bad. Like, I really don’t know how to describe it,” said the lifty. He and several other staff members who spoke to The Herald wished to remain anonymous out of fear that they would be fired for speaking out. “There’s nothing going right. There’s nothing to do. Everybody is just so stressed that nobody communicates.”

Many employees and patrons agree each hangup has one root cause: the resort’s failure to attract and retain enough staff. They blame Stevens Pass’ ownership, Vail Resorts, a Colorado-based ski conglomerate that reported $1.91 billion in net revenue last year.

Customers are demanding better treatment of resort employees and refunds of their season passes. An online petition, accusing the company of deceiving consumers in the name of profit, garnered about 20,000 signatures in just a few days this week. And since Christmas Day, at least a dozen people have filed consumer complaints against the resort with the state Office of the Attorney General.

Vail Resorts, one of a few corporate giants that own most of North America’s ski industry, has apologized for a rocky season kickoff at Stevens Pass. The publicly traded company attributed the issues to an employee shortage that’s industry-wide and a global pandemic that’s still plaguing the service economy.

“Like others in the travel and leisure industry, Stevens Pass is contending with staffing shortages, creating challenges for certain departments,” Vail Resorts spokesperson Sara Roston said in an email. “Right now, we’re focusing our staff where we can maximize our operations while keeping guest safety as our top priority, and we remain committed to providing the best possible experience.”

The resort is also in the midst of the busiest time of the year and dealing with the impact of the omicron coronavirus variant, Roston said.

“This means we haven’t been able to open as much of the mountain as we would like, and not every on-mountain restaurant is operating fully,” she said.

As with other challenges of the pandemic, service workers are bearing the burden, employees and skiers say.

In this case, many staff members are doing manual labor — for little more than minimum wage — to keep the ski hill running at sub-freezing temperatures. And they’re doing it out of devotion to winter sports and Washington’s great outdoors.

“I love the job,” said the lifty. “We just need more housing, we need better pay, and we need to be treated better overall by Vail. Because they just don’t care. It’s dysfunctional from the core.”

A chair lift sits idle at Stevens Pass on Thursday afternoon. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A chair lift sits idle at Stevens Pass on Thursday afternoon. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘Our poor little mountain’

At Stevens Pass, five out of 10 chairlifts, as well as the resort’s two conveyors, have opened this season, according to Vail Resorts.

The morning of New Year’s Eve, the resort website reported about 40% of terrain and 32 of 77 trails were closed.

“We are actively working to address our staffing issues through ongoing recruiting efforts and scheduling employees in ways that allow us to remain operational, without sacrificing safety,” Roston said. “The minute we’re able to expand our offerings, we most certainly will.”

But the resort’s clientele and staff question how long they’ll have to wait for a full opening.

“Our higher-ups tell us nothing,” said the lift operator. “All we’re told is, ‘We’re working on it.’ But we’re supposed to be the ones that are working on it. And none of us are working on it. So we know that’s a lie.”

Few lifties returned following last season, employees say. So managers have called on staff from other departments to run the lifts, including food and beverage staff, maintenance workers, ski school instructors and ski patrollers, who are responsible for handling medical emergencies on the slopes and conducting avalanche control.

“It’s actually seriously a safety issue,” said another employee, who has worked there more than three seasons. “If folks aren’t trained to be a lift operator, and they don’t know how to properly load a guest or when to push the stop button, somebody can get seriously injured or even die. Bottom line, that’s how it affects the customer experience.”

Some skiers and snowboarders haven’t made it to the slopes because of parking problems. There are not enough employees to direct parking, clear snow from the lots and shuttle people between overflow parking areas and the main resort, workers said. The lapses have led to bottlenecks on U.S. 2, which can already be treacherous in freezing temperatures.

The company has acknowledged the parking woes, too, and said it’s working to fix them.

Many customers have already paid for their season passes, ranging in cost from about $500 to roughly $1,000, depending on how many Vail Resorts ski areas they intend to access.

They feel ripped off.

Worse, patrons and employees said, they miss what Stevens Pass once was: a family-oriented ski hill, in business since 1937 on the crest of the Cascade mountains that drew a range of visitors from near and far — but ultimately catered to loyal customers with homes closer to the slopes.

“The Highway 2 corridor is such a special place. It’s really rare in modern society that you’re able to find a mountain that still has some level of working-class community around it,” said another employee, who has worked there three years. “What is really disheartening to me is to know the potential that this mountain has, and has had in the past, and to see that Vail is not delivering that.”

That culture, they said, began to dissipate in 2018, when Vail Resorts purchased the roughly 1,100-acre ski area from Ski Resort Holdings for $64 million.

“Vail has ruined the culture of Stevens Pass. And people don’t want to work here anymore,” said the employee of three seasons. “Our poor little mountain is getting run into the ground by big corporate America.”

One of the parking lots at Stevens Pass on Thursday afternoon. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

One of the parking lots at Stevens Pass on Thursday afternoon. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘A strong commitment to culture’

The company contends that, even with the hardships of the pandemic, it has managed to improve Stevens Pass with investments in maintenance, vehicle fleet and chairlifts.

“We do acknowledge we have brought change, the most substantial of which is the stability provided by being part of an integrated network of resorts,” Roston said. “With every integration there are new policies and procedures and that can be difficult; however, we work very hard to ensure employees feel valued at Stevens Pass – everyone here is incredibly passionate about this place and supporting it.”

Vail Resorts owns 37 mountain resorts and ski areas in North America and Australia, including Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Park City Mountain Resort in Utah and Keystone and Breckenridge resorts in Colorado, in addition to its flagship, Vail Mountain.

The corporation also has a portfolio of luxury hotels, condos and golf courses, according to its website.

Last summer, Vail Resorts raised wages for many workers, instituting a $15-an-hour minimum for employees at Stevens Pass and resorts in several other states. The change was announced in a July news release as “the largest single investment the company will make ahead of this coming ski and snowboard season.”

The company also offers “comprehensive benefits and perks,” Roston said, including a wellness program, ski and snowboard passes for employees, and discounts on food, drinks and lodging.

“We remain focused on attracting and retaining talent through competitive wages, comprehensive benefits, and a strong commitment to culture and leadership development,” Roston said in her recent email. “We’re actively hiring and looking for great talent to join us, and encourage anyone interested to please apply on our jobs site.”

But various former and current staff members, as well as longtime customers, described a downward spiral once the company acquired Stevens Pass.

The perks that kept people coming back dwindled.

New leadership axed regular events that catered to local customers and live music on the weekends.

Employees lost their regular “ride breaks” during their shifts.

“When you’re doing this job for minimum wage and you don’t get to participate in your passion, it drains people and makes unhappy employees,” said the employee of more than three seasons. “It’s kind of hard to be a ski bum when you’re required to work 80 hours a week.”

Long-timers left or got fired as Vail Resorts consolidated management and moved positions to Colorado, the employee said.

The on-site human resources department was outsourced to an online platform. By default, managers absorbed the duties of human resources on the mountain, she said.

Because of a lack of communication between management and employees, there’s a lot of confusion among workers about the resort’s COVID-19 protocols, such as when to get tested.

According to the resort website, all employees must be vaccinated and “undergo daily health screenings.”

The bars where co-workers used to grab beers with one another after their shifts are mostly closed this season, employees said.

The Granite Peaks Lodge has been opened for the season, and so have its three restaurants — T-Bar, Cascadian Kitchen and Bull’s Tooth, according to the company.

But the two other lodges, and the two restaurants inside each one, are either barely operating or entirely shuttered.

Everett resident Ryley Fee, a longtime snowboarder, had a season pass to the resort for years.

Fee, 48, taught his two daughters to ski there through independent ski schools that previously operated on the grounds.

When Vail Resorts took over, though, those instructors were “booted in favor of the corporate version,” he said.

He once owned a fifth-wheel camper and would stay for a week or a weekend in the resort’s RV lot, where other long-timers hung out. But the RV space was slashed to make room for more cars, he said.

Anticipating “atrocious” lift lines this winter, he chose not to buy a seasonal Epic Pass for the first time in years.

“Over the span of three years since Vail has bought (Stevens Pass), the culture has changed, and the service has gone into the toilet. And I’m upset about it,” Fee said. “Both of my sons still have Epic passes this year. It was a big topic of conversation at Christmas. Everybody’s pissed.”

A sign welcomes skiers to Stevens Pass. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A sign welcomes skiers to Stevens Pass. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘Safe, comfortable and secure’

Karlee Eriksen was in middle management at Stevens Pass when Vail Resorts took ownership. During their last season working for the company, they rented a 150-square-foot “shed-turned-tiny-house” for $600 a month.

There was no hot water, no toilet and no shower, Eriksen said.

“I gave them the ultimatum last spring that if I don’t get on-mountain housing, I’m not coming back,” said Eriksen, who then left and got another job at an Oregon ski area.

There’s a housing crunch in many ski resort communities nationwide, where families with big money and outside investors dominate the residential real estate market.

The same is true in the cities and towns near Stevens Pass, current and former employees say, and Vail Resorts has made the problem worse.

The company shut down low-cost employee housing nearby, where employees could rent a bed for a few hundred dollars a month just a five-minute drive from the summit.

Vail Resorts also discontinued a program that offered local property owners a free season pass if they rented out rooms to ski area workers at affordable rates, instead of marketing them to visitors as short-term rentals, according to employees.

The company still offers a few housing options close to the mountain and in neighboring towns, but those spots are limited and fill up fast, employees said.

Now many staff members live in Monroe or Leavenworth and commute roughly an hour each way. Some live in Wenatchee, 58 miles away, or farther.

Vail Resorts provides free daily bus service from the communities on the east and west sides of the pass, said Roston, the company spokesperson.

In addition to resort-owned employee lodging, the company is also “working to secure employee housing for Stevens Pass team members that is safe, comfortable, and secure” by leasing other properties, she said.

“We also recognize that securing affordable housing in mountain communities, including those near Stevens Pass, has been a consistent challenge over the years,” Roston said in her email, “and it’s one Vail Resorts is continuously working to navigate for our employees.”

She added the company welcomes and values employee feedback and has an online survey. At Stevens, regular meetings connect management and employees from different departments, she said.

Those in senior leadership positions also work alongside frontline staff on a regular basis, she said, “whether it’s supporting lift operations or helping in the kitchen at one of our restaurants.”

‘Not a sustainable model’

As frustrations have risen among those who spend the most time on the mountain, critics are increasingly accusing the company of putting profit before the welfare of employees and customers.

At Stevens Pass and a few other resorts, including in Park City, ski patrollers have unionized to advocate for livable wages, training, housing and other benefits.

The Stevens Pass union, formed in 2019, recently approved a contract with the company after two years of negotiations, according to a Dec. 3 post to its Instagram page.

“A big sticking point and question on folks mind is wages,” says the post. “We agreed to a $15/$17/$18 starting wage for patrollers level 1, 2, 3 respectively, with room for raises in all categories. While we wish the team could’ve bargained for more we know Vail will not budge on this wage scale and cares about profit over employee wellbeing. We also know this contract is a good STARTING point and want to move forward into this season with all our other rights.”

In the most recent fiscal year, Vail Resorts paid its CEO $3.8 million, according to a notice of the latest annual stockholder meeting. That’s 223 times the pay of the median employee, compensated $17,128 annually, says the notice. By law, the company must report the pay ratio.

The online petition alleges the company has mistreated employees and failed to deliver on the product customers purchased when they paid for the popular Epic Pass, offered at a range of prices with different options for access to Vail’s resorts and other partner resorts.

Authored by Seattle resident Jeremy Rubingh, the petition says Vail Resorts has violated Washington consumer protection laws. It calls on the company to “commit to returning 60% of the cost of a season’s pass to all pass holders” or address the problems at Stevens Pass by Jan. 15.

Rubingh, 41, told The Herald he moved to Seattle 2½ years ago from Crested Butte, Colorado, where Vail Resorts had also taken over the local ski area.

He said he saw the community there “hollowed out” by the corporation’s clientele, who traveled into town on weekends and for vacations and put a strain on the housing market, by creating an incentive for landlords to turn their properties into Airbnbs, instead of renting them to locals.

He and other upset customers said the issues at Stevens Pass this winter are exacerbated because the company over-sold season passes ahead of opening day.

“It’s creating this strain on the product. And they haven’t bothered to look at what they’re actually delivering to the consumer,” Rubingh said. “We’re talking about a large corporation that’s exploiting workers, it’s exploiting consumers, and it’s frankly just not a sustainable model.”

After the pandemic scuttled last year’s ski season, Vail Resorts offered special discounts this year on the Epic Pass.

The company discounted all passes by 20%, lowering the cost of the unlimited Epic Pass to $879 this season from $1,099 last season.

Company executives want to transition to a “subscription” business model so that season pass sales would make up most of their revenue, instead of individual lift ticket sales, according to a presentation to shareholders last spring.

Ahead of this season, Vail Resorts sold nearly 50% more passes, resulting in a 20% increase in sales through Dec. 5, 2021, as compared to a similar period leading up to last season, the company recently reported.

In comparison to 2019-20 sales, this season sales are up 76%.

“I think we should be open and be positive and allow Vail to respond and do something that shows they care about their customers,” Rubingh said. “But at the end of the day, if the model is to just monopolize the ski industry and cut corners and cut costs, then I don’t think they’re in the right business. I don’t think that’s what people in Washington state want.”

Others wonder whether the corporation is capable of overseeing a ski area that’s not in a high-end resort town.

“I think a lot of these issues boil down to a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach employed by Vail Resorts,” Dave Divelbiss, a Renton resident who has skied Stevens Pass for 35 years, wrote in an email to The Herald.

“Stevens is not a vacation destination. It is not situated amongst luxury condos, fancy restaurants, and ski mansions, but instead nestled in the natural beauty of the Cascades, on rugged terrain that in 1910 witnessed the deadliest avalanche in US history,” Divelbiss said. “The best skiing is expert, steep terrain on the backside & in the trees. Trying to cram the base area with tourists overwhelms the local infrastructure and frustrates both the tourists (and) locals alike. Vail Resorts either needs to realize this & operate the area accordingly, or sell to someone who will.”

‘This is unprecedented’

Other companies in the ski industry are having trouble hiring now, not only due to the pandemic but also because of challenges endemic to the industry, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

After the 2020-21 season, a survey by the trade group found that about 60% of U.S. ski areas were unable to fill all open positions, said Adrienne Saia Isaac, the association’s director of marketing and communications.

The industry is also grappling with employee housing shortages, competition from other non-seasonal industries and, in some cases, a limited local workforce, Isaac said.

But season pass holders reject the company’s argument that the problems are universal, citing other Washington resorts — like Crystal Mountain and Mount Baker — that are fully open.

“We’re wondering why Stevens Pass doesn’t have the staff, but Baker does and Crystal does,” said Lisa Niblett, who has skied the pass with her husband for more than two decades.

“We were all concerned about Vail corporation coming in and buying our resort,” said Niblett, 61, of Mukilteo. “But, you know, we were going to give them a chance, right?”

She and her husband started to notice red flags at the resort last year. Lifts broke down without explanation. Social distancing restrictions led to longer lines. Their tradition is to hit the slopes on Christmas Day. But this year, because of the lines, they didn’t.

“We’ve been going up there for 21 years. This is unprecedented,” Niblett said.

During the winter, skiing is their life, she said.

She bought a house in Mukilteo and got a job in Everett to be closer to the resort.

She checks the website every day for the resort’s weather and snowfall.

She wants to jettison off the mountain’s Tye Mill chairlift again, with the sun on her face and the Cascade range sprawling before her.

“We just want our mountain back,” she said.

And if they can’t get their mountain back, Niblett added, they want their money back.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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