Making ends meet: How Summit County’s hourly wage workers patch together a tight budget

A lift operator watches as skiers unload a chairlift on opening day Nov. 6 at Keystone Resort.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

FRISCO — It’s no secret that Summit County, where the cost of living soars well beyond the national average, can be a difficult place to make ends meet.

Affordable housing, child care, health care, mental health and minimum wage are common topics of discussion in local government. Those in the seasonal and service industry workforce fill low-wage jobs and spend well beyond the recommended 30% of their income on housing, leaving little left for basic needs. 

The financial pressures on the hourly wage workforce, further exacerbated by the pandemic, are starkly contrasted by the steady stream of wealthy visitors to a world-class ski resort vacation destination. 

By the numbers

As of Jan. 1, Colorado’s minimum wage was set at $12 per hour, up from $11.10 last year. While most hourly wage jobs in Summit County pay higher than minimum wage, including entry-level roles at ski resorts, many fail to meet the self-sufficiency standard in Summit County for one adult: $14.47 per hour. 

The self-sufficiency standard, which was developed by the nonprofit Center for Women’s Welfare in partnership with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, determines how much income individuals and families need to get by without assistance. In Summit County, the self-sufficiency standard for 2020 is an annual salary of $30,568 for one adult, or $14.47 per hour. For one adult with a preschool-age child, the self-sufficiency standard jumps to $65,750 annually, or $31.13 per hour. By contrast, Denver County’s self-sufficiency standard is $28,727 annually for an individual and $56,893 for a parent with a preschool-age child.

Vail Resorts, which employs thousands of seasonal and year-round employees at Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort in Summit County, starts Colorado employees at $12.25 an hour. However, the company provides rental housing for employees — about 2,000 beds in Summit County — at well below market rates. Vail Resorts would not release the cost of employee housing. At Copper Mountain Resort’s employee housing facility, The EDGE, monthly rent is $337.50 per person.

Copper spokesperson Olivia Butrymovich declined to disclose Copper’s starting wage this season — it was $12.25 last season — but Copper Director of Employee Experience Kelly Renoux said wages are based on an annual market analysis of similar ski resorts. She said that even though everyone at Copper is paid above minimum wage, an increase in minimum wage would still mean a bump in wages at Copper.

While Colorado minimum wage and the base pay at ski areas have increased over time, the increase hasn’t kept pace with the rising price of a single-day lift ticket. In 2003, a lift ticket at Breckenridge cost $67. Compare that with the $173 price tag of a lift ticket in 2019, and you have a price increase of 158% over 16 years. In the same time frame, Colorado minimum wage has increased $5.95, or 115%, up from $5.15 in 2003 to $11.10 in 2019.

Prosperity Disparity

Prosperity Disparity is a three-part series by the Summit Daily News highlighting the struggles of the hourly wage workforce.

Nov. 16
Making ends meet: How Summit County’s hourly wage workers patch together a tight budget

Nov. 23
Housing crunch: Summit County’s workforce is increasingly being pushed out by second-home owners

Nov. 30
Transient workforce: How high turnover affects the workplace and the mental health of seasonal workers

Ski area officials frequently note that single-day lift ticket sales remain a small portion of the industry’s daily business and don’t reflect the true cost of skiing now that multimountain season passes offer discounts when compared with the daily window rate.

To help bridge the gap between minimum wage and Summit County’s high cost of living, county officials began a discussion last fall about setting a local minimum wage, including conducting a survey of hourly wage workers and setting up a work group. In January, the Summit Board of County Commissioners appeared poised to vote on a resolution that would increase minimum wage in unincorporated Summit County by 75 cents a year starting in 2021 until the minimum wage reached $15 an hour. 

The minimum wage conversation has since been derailed by the pandemic, and the Board of County Commissioners is not expected to return to the issue this year, County Manager Scott Vargo said. Despite initial support from the board, some town governments were undecided on the issue, and Silverthorne was “strongly opposed.”

In August 2019, Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula spoke out against setting a local minimum wage, saying the ramifications are unknown. The Breckenridge Town Council hasn’t brought the topic back up since the pandemic has pushed other matters to the forefront. 

Mamula, who owns the restaurant Downstairs at Eric’s, offers a starting pay of $15 per hour and said most people in town start workers at rates above minimum wage.

“It is difficult in this town to have a business and not pay that,” Mamula said. “Starting wage at a lot of restaurants, at least in town, is $15 an hour.” 

Base pay works differently for tipped employees like servers. The state requires employees’ hourly income, including salary and tips, to meet minimum wage. Employers, therefore, can pay an hourly wage less than the minimum with the caveat that the employee makes at least minimum wage once tips are included. 

In Colorado, hourly minimum wage for tipped employees is $8.98 with the remaining $3.02 expected to come from employees’ tips for the hour. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for waiters and waitresses in northwest Colorado is $10.64.

From overworked to unemployed

The nonprofit Family & Intercultural Resource Center works with individuals and families to help meet their basic needs, and staff at the center see first-hand the most pressing community needs. 

Prior to the pandemic, a general theme of the Summit County workforce was that it was overworked. 

“Most of who we see definitely work a full-time job, if not a full-time job and then some,” resource center Executive Director Brianne Snow said.

In January and February, the unemployment rate in Summit County was 1.6%, leaving about 400 people in the county registered as unemployed. By comparison, over 25,000 people were employed during those months. Summit County’s historically low unemployment rate meant that, for the most part, anyone who wanted a job had one — or three. 

A workforce survey conducted last fall by Summit County to tackle the minimum wage question gathered more than 900 responses from local workers. Of workforce respondents who rent, 39% worked two jobs and 29% worked three jobs. Per week, 32% of respondents worked 40 hours, 34% worked 50 hours and 27% worked 60 hours or more. Only 7% of respondents reported working fewer than 40 hours.

When the pandemic hit in March, shutting down businesses throughout the county, unemployment rose to 3% and then skyrocketed to a historic high of 21.6% in April with more than 5,000 people unemployed. The county’s unemployment rate is recovering at 8.1% in August. Prior to the pandemic, unemployment hadn’t been as high as 8% since May 2012, when the economy was recovering from the Great Recession.

Snow said the same issues the county has been facing for years — housing affordability, child care and health care — were exacerbated by the pandemic. Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of mental health nonprofit Building Hope Summit County, added that prior to the pandemic, if an individual or family couldn’t pay their bills, they could go out and tack on another job. That option was limited during the shutdown. 

Family & Intercultural Resource Center Support Manager Michel Infante said the norm among his clients is two-parent households with both parents working full-time jobs and single-parent households where the parent works two or three jobs just to cover basic needs. Infante said it’s very rare that he sees families who have the opportunity to work only one job and have a parent stay home with the children. That tends to happen only when there are several children in the household, and the cost of child care would be more than one parent’s income. 

The self-sufficiency standard estimates the annual cost of professional child care for an infant at more than $18,000. For a household with an infant and a preschooler, the cost would be more than $35,500 annually.

When a parent does stay home to watch their children, Snow said they often watch an extra child or two to supplement the family’s income.

With high child care costs in Summit County, Infante said people are getting by but aren’t making enough money to save or be in a position where they’re prepared for an emergency, such as unexpected medical costs or a car breaking down.

Infante said a common reason people come to the resource center in need of housing assistance is because something unexpected happened. For families who live paycheck to paycheck, there’s no flexibility in their budgets, and an unexpected cost could mean not having enough money left to pay rent. 

Family & Intercultural Resource Center Executive Director Brianne Snow helps carry a food delivery in Silverthorne on Thursday, Nov. 12. Snow said the resource center sees lots of single individuals coming to the center’s food pantries and thrift stores to stretch their budgets. 
Liz Copan/For the Summit Daily News

Cutting costs

Because Summit County’s workforce spends such a large percentage of its income on housing — Infante said over half of the resource center’s clients spend more than 50% of their pay on rent — people try to cut costs in other areas, most notably on health care. 

Snow said whenever staff members meet someone who doesn’t have health insurance they try to explain the benefits and how it could potentially save a person or family from bankruptcy if they were to face a medical emergency. Staff then can help clients enroll in health insurance programs.

“That’s a tough conversation to have because if you don’t have that extra income to put toward this preventative piece, many people don’t see the benefit outweighing just trying to figure it out month to month to pay for it,” Snow said. “… They’re struggling to put food on the table, so this seems like an extravagance to have health insurance.” 

Infante said he’ll see familiar faces at local food pantries and community dinners as residents try to stretch their income. On average, Snow said, families can receive $350 worth of food per week by using the resource center’s food pantries. As part of a community assessment the nonprofit conducted in July, more than 300 households were asked if their income is sufficient to cover basic needs. Nearly 30% of respondents answered “no.” About 13% of respondents said they are hungry at times or can’t get enough food.

Snow said the resource center sees lots of single individuals coming to the center’s food pantries and thrift stores to stretch their budgets. 

Families also try to save on child care.

People get creative with child care, trading child care with other families or paying a neighbor less than they would a licensed provider. Snow said this can be a good solution, but sometimes children are left with people who aren’t paying attention or don’t have child-safe spaces.

“When you’re looking at $50 a day to bring your kid to a licensed child care provider, some people forgo that,” Snow said.

According to the self-sufficiency standard, child care is expected to cost a single parent with a preschooler $1,457 per month in Summit County. Snow said the monthly child care cost for clients with a child is $446 on average, hinting that many are finding alternatives to licensed child care providers.

Like nearly everything else, the pandemic has presented an additional challenge for child care. If quarantines are imposed at child care facilities, children will have to stay home for a 14-day period, which could result in a loss of income for parents who also need to stay home. At the same time, parents must continue to pay the child’s tuition despite the care facility being closed. 

“A big systemic issue is the way our child care works,” Early Childhood Options Executive Director Lucinda Burns said in August. “Most of our child care programs are funded by parent tuition. … Even though child care provides an important public service, they’re mostly privately funded organizations. So when a classroom closes, it’s not realistic to say, ‘OK, the classroom is closed so parent, you don’t need to pay for tuition for these next two weeks,’ because the programs still rely on that revenue to pay their staff and keep their lights on.”

Sierra Andrews works at the Building Hope Summit County office in Frisco on Thursday, Nov. 12. Andrews works two part-time jobs in addition to an internship, all while going to school for her master’s degree.
Photo by Liz Copan/For the Summit Daily News

Making it work

Sierra Andrews is a Summit County resident who works multiple jobs to make ends meet and to reach her career goals.

Andrews, who has family in the area, moved to Summit County in 2016. She works part time at Building Hope, part time at the Briar Rose Chophouse & Saloon and interns part time at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center while getting her master’s degree in social work.

Although she grew up visiting Summit County, she said she didn’t expect the cost of living to be quite so high, whether it’s the cost of housing or going out to eat. She said she was pleasantly surprised, however, with the availability of job opportunities that pertain to her career path. 

Andrews said the main thing that keeps her in Summit County is the lifestyle. She appreciates the small-town nature of the community and the recreational activities residents get to enjoy. Andrews works multiple jobs partly because of the high cost of living but partly because it’s a career choice. 

“I think I also work more up here to afford that livestyle, to be able to buy a ski pass and maybe get new equipment when needed,” Andrews said.

Kia Grant moved to Summit County in fall 2016 to work for Vail Resorts doing product sales. 

“It was the classic, ‘Do it for a season and then leave,’ which I did,” Grant said. “And then I came right back for the next season.”

Grant — who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri — fell in love with the mountain lifestyle. 

After her first winter in Summit County she left for the summer to work a seasonal job in California before coming back with the goal of finding a full-time, year-round position so she could set down roots in Breckenridge. 

“A big difference between folks from back home versus people up here, in Summit County specifically, is people in Summit County have a long list of hobbies,” Grant said. “… In Kansas City, that isn’t really on people’s radar. So that’s part of what attracted me to living out here and part of what still attracts me is just the work-life balance, so people actually enjoy where they live versus just working for a paycheck and spending a week or two out of the year going somewhere like Summit County.”

But the ski town lifestyle doesn’t come without sacrifices: Grant lives in her van to make ends meet.

“Summit County … is definitely a work-hard, play-hard town, where winter is really the moneymaking season,” Grant said. “So winter is when I’m putting in 50-60 hours at work.”

Coming next week: The Summit Daily News explores the cost of housing in Summit County and how a lack of affordable options continues to push the workforce farther from town.

Community Resources

Family and Intercultural Resource Center
Housing assistance, food pantries, utility assistance, health insurance enrollment, connection to mental health resources, parenting and child development resources

Summit Combined Housing Authority
Housing, including landlord/tenant and homebuyer education, lists of affordable apartment complexes and down payment assistance

Building Hope Summit County
Mental health resources, including mental health scholarships, connection to therapy, support groups and community connectedness events

Summit Community Care Clinic
970-668-4040,, 360 Peak One Drive No. 100, Frisco
Medical, behavioral and dental care on a sliding fee scale for insured or uninsured patients

Father Dyer Church
970-453-2250,, 310 Wellington Road, Breckenridge
Food pantry and community dinners at 6 p.m. Sundays in the church’s downstairs Fellowship Hall

Lord of the Mountains Church
970-468-6809,, 56 U.S. Highway 6, Dillon
Lunches, showers, laundry and internet access Wednesday and Friday afternoons, and community dinners Tuesday evenings

Vail Resorts
Employees only
Free counseling through the employee assistance program, educational and emergency relief grants through the EpicPromise Employee Foundation

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