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Whitefish ski patrollers file petition to unionize

by MATT BALDWIN
Daily Inter Lake | February 22, 2024 1:05 AM

David Kerner is passionate about his work as a ski patroller at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Clocking in early, making the rounds to prep the slopes each morning, and helping guests have a fun and safe experience are all the parts of a job that keeps him coming back.

Yet, after four winters patrolling Big Mountain, he is left questioning whether he can afford another season as his $19.18 per hour paycheck continually falls short of Whitefish’s cost of living.

“It’s hard, at the end of the paycheck, to see what you’re left with,” Kerner said. “I’m stretched thin throughout the wintertime and then I have to make it all up in the summer. I take losses to do this job. But I love doing it.”

Kerner is hopeful change is on the horizon as Whitefish Mountain Resort Professional Ski Patrol filed a petition last week with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize under the United Professional Ski Patrols of America/CWA. The union represents more than 700 members across nine ski resorts, including Big Sky Resort in Montana, Park City in Utah, Steamboat, Telluride and Breckenridge in Colorado, and Stevens Pass in Washington.

Kerner said there was strong consensus among Whitefish’s 31 ski patrollers to file the petition, with 77% support.

Among the Whitefish patrollers’ goals with unionization are fair compensation, a yearly gear allowance, continuing education, as well as health care stipends and paid time off. They also want to ensure a work culture “where all employees are treated with dignity and respect, free from harassment, fear and job insecurity.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort officials last week confirmed they were notified of the union effort and said they were looking at what it would mean for the resort. They were expected to respond to the petition on Tuesday, Feb. 20.

“We value our ski patrol and what it brings to our overall operation, and we intend to work to chart the best path forward,” officials said in a statement last week.

According to Whitefish ski patroller Jamie Burkholder, the current base wage for patrollers at the resort of $18 per hour is on par with other areas in the West, but it’s difficult to secure a raise based on years of service or additional training.

“There’s no incentive to go beyond that,” Burkholder said, who has worked at the resort for seven seasons and started at a $9-per-hour rate.

A gear allowance of $750 every three seasons is also a sticking point for patrollers. The resort provides a jacket, but all other gear comes out of the patroller’s own pocket, including skis, boots, helmet, pants and backpack.

Both Burkholder and Kerner said the wear-and-tear on gear is concerning when it comes to personal and guest safety, particularly with skis and bindings.

“I click into my skis when I have a patient in the toboggan and I’m thinking to myself, holy crap, man, I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve clicked in and out of these skis,” Kerner said. “I’m about to take someone in a toboggan — I’ve seen a runaway toboggan — that is the last thing I would ever want.”

On average, a ski patroller at Whitefish Mountain Resort will personally respond to 40 calls a season, Kerner said. Those incidents can range from a small cut or twisted knee, to a full resuscitation and helicopter air-lift. Patrollers also evaluate avalanche terrain and handle explosives for avalanche mitigation.

According to Burkholder, Whitefish ski patrollers would like to see an investment in ongoing training so they can keep their skills sharp. Currently, training costs and time away from the resort are paid out of pocket or through the philanthropic Patrol Fund.

Burkholder says the resort should pick up the tab more often for those expenses.

“There’s a general feeling across the department that we’d like to see the resort step up and take care of things like that, instead of us having the Patrol Fund being our support system financially for a lot of things,” he said.

Kerner points to Big Sky Resort ski patrol as a shining example of what Whitefish patrollers hope to attain through unionizing. Big Sky patrollers unionized in 2022 under a contract that established performance-based wage increases, ongoing training and job security, among other incentives.

“It’s night and day difference for them,” Kerner said. “They struggled with organizational structure before the union, now they have a firm organizational structure. Now they have pay incentives, they have health care stipends. They have phenomenal gear allowances.”

Scott Alexander, who works with ski patrol and the Whitefish Fire Department, believes unionizing is the path to achieving their goals.

“Maybe through, you know, a show of union force,” he said.

For Kerner, it’s about securing a future in the career field he loves.

“I do this job every season because I love my crew. I love opening up terrain and seeing the joy [skiers] get when we have those powder cycles. I think the skill sets that all of us have are remarkable and that we all enjoy getting to help people, and they need our help quite often.

“It would be awesome if we could make this sustainable, so that we could do this for a long time, and that we could be healthy doing it, happy doing it, and financially square.”