Winter employees relying on snow for income in Tahoe-Truckee area
Working in an industry reliant on colder weather can prove trying for seasonal ski industry employees, who deal with the combination of low wages and high cost of living in the Tahoe area.
And while most major resorts like Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Northstar this year stayed true to promised opening dates, some employees struggle to survive financially while waiting to resume work at the start of a new season.
Ryley Gallagher, who has worked as a ski instructor at Northstar California for the past four winters, said he had to resort to borrowing money from family last year to survive while opening day was delayed.
“I didn’t know where to look for work,” he said, as he was unaware of any positions at the mountain. Once the season took off he said he was able to rack up the hours he needed.
“Our mid-season was tough,” said Liesl Hepburn, public relations director for Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, who noted the mountain did have a strong opening weekend last season. She said that when hours in a certain department are restricted, the Human Resources department will work to find that employee a different job for the day.
“We continue to keep shifts available and work a lot inter-departmentally,” she said.
For example, if the chair a lift operator traditionally works was shut down that day, the employee could find work in a different department such as tickets sales or other areas of operations.
Gallagher has taken advantage of a similar approach at Northstar, through different circumstances as he was unable to instruct in previous seasons due to injuries.
“Two of the years I’ve been here I’ve had two injuries,” he said. The first was a torn ACL during the 2015 to 2016 season. He resorted to working in the Ski School office again last season when he broke his collarbone.
“Once I was able to move around on my crutches they were able to get me work in the office as a receptionist,” he said. “They’ve been pretty good about finding me hours. They’ve given me exactly what I needed to get through.”
And then there’s housing
According to Gallagher, housing is a near impossible search unless “you know the right people.”
“If you’re moving here alone without knowing someone it can be one of the hardest places to find housing in my mind,” he said.
According to an April 2018 report by the Tahoe Prosperity Center, the average annual income per capita in the Tahoe Basin is $30,516.
A 2016 regional housing study done by the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation reported that 76 percent of residents are overpaying for housing, meaning more than 30 percent of their income goes towards their housing costs.
While Squaw Valley and Northstar advertise competitive wages compared to other resorts in the area, a shortage of affordable housing options in the area is a barrier for many seasonal employees.
“There’s no question that there’s a shortage of housing and it can be difficult for our staff to find housing,” said Hepburn. “We try to be more creative to try and open more opportunities with housing that exists in the area.”
During the 2014 to 2015 season, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows started a “Residential Rewards” program, which offered a $350 resort credit for local owners who rented their properties to winter employees. At the start, 15 property owners participated, and last season that number went up to 20, providing housing to 48 employees. In addition the resorts has 13 apartments and about 40 tenants utilizing on-site employee housing.
“Our true goal is to connect employees to landlords,” Hepburn said. “Employees often want choice in their housing selection, and so the more choice we can provide, the happier they are.”
Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-550-2652.