Summit County’s seasonal employees, area charities feel pinch of delayed winter
December 15, 2016
Just a few minutes after 6 p.m. the wooden pews at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Breckenridge are quickly filling up.
Strumming an acoustic guitar, the Rev. Charlie Brumbaugh is trying to lead the group — many of whom are dressed not in their Sunday best, but in plaid and heavy coats, with their long hair tucked under beanies and backward caps emblazoned with the Breckenridge Ski Resort insignia — in a rendition of "Silent Night." The guests are happy to attend this Tuesday night gathering, but few appear interested in contributing to the holiday chestnut. The latch of the creaky entry door continues to click regularly, punctuating the Christmas hymn, as people show up for the free weekly dinner.
The snow has now started to fall reliably at Summit County ski areas, but like many parts of the state it got off to a late start this season. As of Thursday evening, less than a third of the lifts at Breckenridge were running, and despite a foot of reported snow the night before at neighboring Copper Mountain Resort, about the same was true there as well. Keystone Resort, meanwhile, had 80 percent of its lifts operating, but only around 40 percent of its trails are open.
The late arrival has caused some challenges for a number of the resorts' seasonal employees, however. If lifts aren't running, it means several of those who move out to the region each year are stuck without work, a paycheck, or sometimes even a consistent meal.
"Definitely my roommates and I were scrappin', we were sharing food — we were doing everything we could to save money," said one Breckenridge employee at the community dinner who lives in Vail-furnished housing at Breckenridge Terrace. "It's your typical ski bum life. We'd get honey packets, saltines at the soup bar and grab some Cholula. I mean, I couldn't afford the food in The Lodge, that's for sure. Even 50-percent off it's still like $8 for a hamburger."
(Several of the ski resorts maintain policies that prevents workers from speaking to the media without first receiving approval from supervisors, so the names of employees quoted have been withheld. "Only members of the Company's public relations department are permitted to provide explanations or comments to the press," reads the Vail Resorts employee handbook.)
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The Breckenridge employee said he was able to take a weeklong job in Denver and make $1,000 before arriving to live and work in Summit. Others he knows weren't so lucky.
"That's how I managed it," the employee said. "Most of the people I know managed to get by. I do know some lifties that are going through some stuff. I don't know, I guess they're banking on getting paid on the 23rd, because we get a paycheck right before Christmas. People are going on credit cards."
Another employee at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area partaking in the free Tuesday night meal said that most workers he knew who are still not working are doing what they can to get by. The discounted breakfasts and lunches for employees at the base of A-Basin helped, he said, but in the past he and friends have waited out their start date by performing manual jobs acquired at the Summit County day laborer site.
"You just never know until the snow starts," he said.
Come All You Weary
St. John's is one of several community dinners hosted each week of the year, and sees as many as 200 walk through the doors on a given night. Others take place at Father Dyer United Methodist Church on Sundays and on Tuesdays at the Elks Lodge on in Silverthorne. As the winter approaches and seasonal workers arrive in waves every year, these community assistance programs are often inundated with resort workers. Its much worse when the snow doesn't arrive on time.
"Most of the people here are young people associated with Vail Corporation," said Rev. Brumbaugh. "We also have people that are transient, people that live on the street, people that live in the neighborhood. Sometimes families come in, but most of them fit this demographic right here — I would say about 90 percent.
"There's that awkward period of coming into Summit County," he continued, "but not really having a paycheck yet. I think this community meal really fills the important gap in that period every year. This year I think it was made a little worse because of the snow coming a little later, and so things got kicked off a little bit later than people expected."
This season, because of the delay of storms, Aspen Skiing Co. provided seasonal employees not yet working with three dinners during the week after Thanksgiving. Copper Mountain's human resources department, which usually provides two meals per month to employees, offered two more during the early season to help out.
The chapel at Copper also does a monthly meal at no charge for resort employees during the ski season, and a Copper spokeswoman noted lunches at The EDGE employee housing are always $5. She also stated that employees are encouraged to pick up work in a different department until theirs opens fully.
Arapahoe Basin, the first ski area to open North America on Oct. 21, is currently running five of its eight lifts, and nearing 40 percent of its trails being open. A spokeswoman for A-Basin said because of their season start time, employees found work either in their departments or in others that needed help in the interim.
"Our seasonal employees were able to get their hours in during the early season," said Leigh Hierholzer, director of A-Basin's marketing and communications. "We already had hours available."
Vail Resorts — which replied to an email about allowances granted to seasonal employees this year, but with no official comment by deadline — chips in contributions to several local organizations. Among those beneficiaries is St. John's in Breckenridge, which receives an annual donation of $1,500 through the EpicPromise Foundation for the church's community dinners. Management-level employees at Breckenridge volunteer at the evening dinner each month as well when there's a fifth Tuesday of the month. They did so on Nov. 29, and are scheduled to do so again both Jan. 31 and May 30 of next year.
An organizer at St. John's explained that Vail's yearly gift goes toward purchasing more sustainable paper products for use in serving dinner attendees. Although she said estimates for an annual budget were difficult to calculate because many parishioners simply donate food and their time to the event, the value of what is offered each year would easily surpass $25,000.
The EpicPromise Foundation also makes a large grant to the Family & Intercultural Resource Center each year. Tamara Drangstveit, FIRC's executive director, called the sum very generous and said both Copper and A-Basin also provide the family-based nonprofit smaller donations that also help with programming including a food pantry, health insurance enrollment and other financial assistance. She said requests have been up at FIRC for aid because of the tardy start to the season.
"In the shoulder season, we see about a 50-percent increase in our food bank from clients, primarily due to the seasonal workforce," said Drangstveit. "This year, we saw about the 50 percent we typically see, and then another 30-percent increase. We'll do our best to help them, but when the need swells like it did this year, we do need to focus our resources on helping families first."
The Breckenridge employee confirmed that the resort pushed rent back from Dec. 1 to the 12th because many living in Breckenridge Terrace had still yet to be paid, and, though a small amount, their check for orientation hours was handed out on Dec. 9. He was not aware of any other assistance Vail provided its employees.
"I've been trying to do this a long time," the employee said of working at a resort. "I'm definitely poor, but I have skis, I have a snowboard, I have a pass, and I get to live out in the mountains, and that's all right with me. We're all still living, we're all still breathing."
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