It takes all kinds |

It takes all kinds

SUMMIT COUNTY – Dragan Popovic stands 6 feet 5 inches, with strong Serbian features. Last April, he graduated from law school, and on May 22, he will return to his native Bosnia. Four days later, he will begin work with the Bosnian government’s Bureau for Relations with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

During the 2002-03 ski season, Popovic bused tables at La Bonte Restaurant in Keystone for $8.50 an hour.

Acquaintances describe Roger McCarthy as an affable man with a trademark dark moustache and the hint of an accent from his native New Zealand. He has deftly maneuvered his way through the upper echelons of the ski industry, including a stint for Intrawest at Mont Tremblant, in Quebec, which he helped raise from a state of bankruptcy to No. 1 in SKI magazine’s ratings in just four years.

A director of the Summit Foundation and the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, and Vail Resorts’ senior vice president and chief operating officer of Breckenridge and Keystone, McCarthy is currently VR’s top dog in Summit County. He owns a home in Breckenridge toward which VR contributed $400,000 of the purchase price.

Eddie Eley, a gregarious, engaging man from Fort Wayne, Ind., worked for Lincoln Financial Advisors, a financial planning company in his hometown, for 15 years. Laughing, he tells how in 1998 he was transferred to Denver to assume a position that, thanks to a merger, no longer existed once he arrived. It wasn’t long before friends in Summit County convinced him to look for work in the mountains.

Eley is currently an online support reservationist at Keystone, handling reservations for all of VR’s lodging and mountain interests in Colorado. A Silverthorne resident, he loves his job.

Pedro, a stocky Mexican national from the state of Chihuahua, recently arrived in Summit County after a friend told him he’d be able to find work. He does not speak English and asked that his surname not be used. Two of his four children now attend elementary school in Dillon.

He supports his family by working a maintenance position at Keystone for $8.50 an hour.

Pedro, Eley, McCarthy and Popovic are but a tiny fraction of the small army that is Vail Resorts employees. It is an army of several thousand personnel who help propel, in large part, the greater Summit County economy.

They buy groceries at City Market, and their children go to Summit public schools. They ride the Summit Stage from before dawn until the last bus goes home.

They party at Barkley’s in Frisco and the Salt Creek in Breckenridge and spend their money on everything from toilet paper to ski gear. They work second jobs and take English classes at night.

Overall, they constitute nearly a quarter of the Summit County workforce.

Every winter, just as the first flakes of white gold begin to fall, Summit County’s population starts to boom. From South Africa to Peru, Australia to Mali, nearly every corner of the globe is represented by the people who arrive seeking snow and work.

Every spring, as the snowpack melts into even more precious water, these same workers trickle off until only a small portion remains. Summer brings a relative calm to the traditional ski country bustle.

On average, Summit County’s population fluctuates by up to 450 percent annually, according to the town of Breckenridge’s 2002 Breckenridge Overview. The 2000 census placed the county at 23,548 permanent residents, a number the overview estimates has grown by a substantial 7.3 percent to 25,268 in 2001. However, the peak county population swelled to nearly 140,000 at the height of ski season.

The majority of this is attributable to the ski industry and, therefore, in large part to VR.

Of the more than 23,100 estimated countywide jobs available during peak season, 4,994 are available at Keystone and Breckenridge alone. Additionally, VR employs 656 “corporate” employees both in Summit County and Avon and 62 more through the Vail Resorts Development Company. Specialty Sports Ventures, a chain of retail stores in which VR has a majority interest, employs 226 people locally.

This amounts to more than one in four county jobs.

“Being one of the bigger employers in the area, I think we’re very important in terms of driving economic growth and stability,” said Rick Smith, vice president of human resources for VR.

This appears to hold true, as, in 2002, Summit County’s unemployment rate settled at 3.8 percent, 2 percent less than the national average.

According to Smith, Keystone, with its conference center and larger lodging segment, employs the bulk of VR’s Summit workers with 3,071. Breckenridge tallies 1,923. Of these, 3,388 are seasonal employees, generally hired in November or December and released in late April. Another 1,606 jobs are year-round and generally consist of management, housekeeping and lodging positions.

Among VR’s Summit staff, around 700 employees have international work visas, principally distributed among Australians, South and Central Americans, British and New Zealand nationals.

Though he mentioned that VR used to actively recruit people in countries like Australia, Smith pointed to the Internet as the principal manner of contacting and employing workers nowadays. He said employment opportunities are now publicized more by “word of mouth.”

Nevertheless, according to various Mexican nationals, recruiting efforts continue in towns like Aguas Calientes, Mexico. Some of those interviewed mentioned such efforts as a principal means of becoming aware of employment opportunities with the company.

As for visas, VR doesn’t “make a practice” of sponsoring them, Smith said, but it does work with many H2B visas, which allow a company to contract temporary employees when it is unable to find enough U.S. citizens to fill its positions. Still, he said, traditional sponsorship of visas does occasionally happen.

Employee retention rates from one season to the next vary widely among departments, Smith said, though they’ve increased in the past few years. Positions such as ski patrol tend to have a higher return rate, generally around 60 or 70 percent, while that of lift operations is estimated closer to 40 percent companywide.

“(Lift operations) used to be 30 percent, and now it’s as high as 50,” Smith said, a trend he attributes to rising unemployment nationally.

Smith noted, however, that many VR employees in areas such as food and beverage come out for a single season just to “have a good time.” In many such positions, he said, “at the end of the season, you’re gone.”

This pattern is reflected in the nearly 1,500 mostly seasonal beds in employee housing that VR maintains across the county. (The resort’s zoning and planning agreements stipulate that the company build employee housing in proportion to its commercial real estate.) Such housing typically consists of two- or three-bedroom units that rent from $275 to $475 a month, much lower than on the open market. Lease arrangements generally obligate residents to remain only for the season and require a deposit of a few hundred dollars.

“We just make it easier for them to live in the community,” he said.

Smith maintains that this attitude is critical because many of the workers on whom VR relies arrive in the county with little knowledge of the area and without a place to stay.

“We have more housing than most of the ski resorts in the West combined,” he said. “And thank God, because it’d be tough to do it without the employee housing.”

However, with conditions that some workers describe as too cramped or overly restrictive because of periodic cleanliness inspections, many employees choose to forge their own paths and seek lodging elsewhere. VR recently hired the Denver firm Corum Real Estate Group to manage such housing, and with the subsequent changes in rental policies, the number of employees who find other lodging may only increase.

Such workers have migrated to houses, condos and apartments spread across the county, from Boreas Pass to Dillon Valley, Montezuma to Wildernest. These residents have greatly affected the local housing market and fueled issues concerning affordable housing in an area with a preponderance of high-priced second homes.

Nevertheless, each year, they find accommodations and, as resident consumers, provide substantial fuel to the local economy.

As for the VR employees themselves, opinions about the company run the gamut, but for many, job satisfaction is generally high.

“Things are good out here,” said Billy Wharton, a snowmaking technician at Keystone. “Everybody bitches and complains about Vail, but I love what I do.”

A 26-year-old with a tired look wrought by long hours on the job and a newborn son at home, Wharton has worked for Keystone for six years. He noted that this year in particular had been hard for the resort because of two accidents involving worker deaths and a reshuffling of management in his department. But he said he maintained a positive outlook.

“It’s a new time, and you can be hopeful,” Wharton said. “I’m happy to do my little part to succeed.”

As for working for Vail Resorts, he simply stated, “I enjoy it a lot.”

Eddie Eley, the energetic online support reservationist from Indiana, echoed that sentiment.

“I think they’re a good company to work for,” Eley said as he rode the Summit Stage home from work one night. “I think they’ve done a good job.”

Eley pointed to good company managers and the comprehensive employee benefits he receives, a point Wharton also mentioned when discussing medical care for his new son.

Speaking with a scratchy voice and thick accent, Dragan Popovic, the Bosnian lawyer, said VR’s help in obtaining permission to work in the country was invaluable.

“I knew they were going to help me get the visa,” said Popovic, who worked for VR two years ago in the Grand Timber Lodge in Breckenridge while on break from his studies.

Fair is fair

Life at VR is not all roses, however.

Although he characterizes VR as a “fair employer,” Popovic also noted that employees often are not given enough hours, forcing them to work multiple jobs.

“We cannot cover our expenses,” he said. Working only 25 hours a week as a full-time employee, Popovic said he knew of at least one employee trying to return home to his native Slovakia because he was unable to afford living in the county. Popovic said that at first he, too, had struggled and had been forced to wait nearly 15 days after his arrival before beginning to work.

“We need more hours,” he said.

A number of VR employees interviewed expressed similar

sentiments. Many said it was difficult to do more than merely subsist in a region with a considerably high cost of living.

Others, including Ali Cofer, a former bartender at Keystone, were less kind. She claims that after failing to fill out a new application for a job she had held for four years, she was let go. Her previously good perception of the company soured.

“Before, I would have stood up to anyone who was badmouthing Keystone or VR,” she said. “But they’ve made some very bad decisions. I was a loyal employee, but they screw you over without giving it a second thought.”

She says that when upper management failed to address the problem, she lost respect for the company has a whole.

“They’re untrustworthy,” she said. “They are not loyal to their employees. They make very poor decisions. They do not care about their employees.”

Yet despite the rancor of a few, the vast majority characterized the overall environment as good and said things had improved since VR had taken over control of the ski areas from previous owner Ralston Resorts, a fact others in the community also noted.

VR takes care of its workers better, Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom said. He said that employees were paid more and given better benefits than under Ralston.

Of Ralston, Lindstrom stated simply, “They were terrible.”

Thus, with a generally decent work environment, benefit opportunities and the draw of mountain living and free skiing, VR continues to draw employees from around the world.

And these employees, people like Popovic, McCarthy, Eley and Pedro, help weave the fabric of the Summit County community.

Aidan Leonard is a free-lancer for the Summit Daily News. He can be reached at, subject: Aidan Leonard.

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