Suffering through the ski season
Samuel, Ed and Edmund are clustered around a motel hot plate heating a simmering pot of banku, a traditional West African corn meal dinner.
They are nearly 8,000 miles from home, preparing to eat after a full day of loading people onto lifts at Boreal and Soda Springs ski resorts. In their cramped, one-bedroom space at Truckee’s Alpine Country Lodge, the propped up hot plate in their living room serves as a kitchen.
But tonight, as the pot bubbles, they smile.
They are leaving Truckee. Leaving the rock-bottom wages and the dismal living conditions; leaving the long hitchhiking sessions in freezing temperatures every morning.
“Even if I was paid $20 an hour, I wouldn’t come here again,” says Samuel in the British-inflected English of his native Ghana. “I can’t stand on the roadside and beg for a ride.”
It’s two months before the trio is supposed to leave. Instead of staying they jumped at the chance to get out of the Truckee area and return to a seasonal job in Yosemite National Park. Transportation to and from work and adequate housing await them there. They can’t wait to leave.
Samuel runs ski lifts at Soda Springs Ski Resort. Ed and Edmund are lift operators at Boreal Mountain Resort.
But their chances of even getting to their jobs atop Donner Summit depend on an outstretched arm and an extended thumb each morning. Sometimes they wait for as long as two hours in the numbing cold before someone picks them up.
After all day working in the snow, getting home can be another hour-long ordeal.
“We are ready to go back” to Yosemite, says Ed. “We cannot live here.”
Samuel, Ed and Edmund, who asked that their last names be withheld, are working in the United States on temporary work visas, or H2B visas. They are three of nearly 66,000 workers who pour into the country every year to work in seasonal jobs Americans won’t take.
The Ghanaians say they each paid $7,500 in September 2004 for visas, plane tickets and agent services to work in the U.S. At the ski resorts they make $7.25 an hour, which amounts to a little more than $800 a month. Together they shell out $825 a month to share a motel one-bedroom at the decidedly no-frills Alpine Country Lodge.
After buying food and other necessities, the workers often have to dip into savings from their past, more lucrative jobs to live.
“The pay,” Ed says, “sometimes doesn’t reach.”
The three men, each in their late 30s, are some of the few international workers who remain at the lodge. Many of the others departed when they realized they couldn’t make ends meet, or tired of the workdays elongated by hours of hitchhiking to and from work.
The workers were brought to the two Donner Summit resorts by Cultural Homestay International, a nonprofit Bay Area visa organization that recruits international workers for seasonal jobs.
But after seeing the conditions the workers have had to endure, Cindy La Rue, operations manager for the visa agency, said she will probably not work with Boreal or Soda Springs again.
“I feel like I drove a lot of people out to the desert and said ‘Find your way home,'” La Rue says.
Other companies Cultural Homestay International has worked with in its 28 years in the business supply affordable housing and transportation for their workers, she says. This year the organization had the task of trying to arrange both housing and transportation.
“We have had challenges,” La Rue says, “but none on this scale.”
This season some workers have had to live in Reno, hop the bus up to Truckee every day and then hitchhike up to the Summit. The situation has kept her awake at night, La Rue says, and she has fielded a continual string of calls from the seasonal workers who contact her on her cell phone.
“[Employers] need to take into account that these are human beings,” La Rue says.
Boreal and Soda Springs first did something about the transportation problem in the middle of this ski season. They set up a carpooling program that rewards workers who have cars if they offer rides to their fellow employees, says Kathy Chan, human resources director for Alpine Meadows, Boreal and Soda Springs. The program has helped workers, she says.
Yet many of the resort employees can still be seen thumbing rides each morning in the harsh winter elements the Sierra Nevada can conjure up.
Chan says the resorts are budgeting to get a bus for their workers next season. The company has been unable to get transportation running this year because of budget constraints and legal requirements that govern the use of buses.
“We don’t want to be a callous company,” she says. “It just doesn’t happen overnight.”
Boreal and Soda Springs did allow workers to rent rooms at the Boreal Inn before Christmas, when the workers were still trying to find housing, Chan says.
That’s about the same time every year when Truckee resident Sharon Esler’s phone starts ringing off the hook. The calls come from international workers scrambling for a place to live.
Esler, who over the last several years has arranged housing for countless international workers, says she cannot believe the resorts’ lack of involvement in housing their workers.
“I just think it is really irresponsible of the ski resorts to offer them jobs and bring them here without housing them or offering them any stipend,” says Esler, who runs a concierge, planning and vacation rental business.
In her years helping out ski workers Esler says she has seen people scrounging bread rolls from the resorts to help stave off hunger. Many stuff four to six people in a room to help cut the cost of rent.
“Some of them can’t even afford to eat,” Esler says.
Sam, Ed and Edmund all have wives and children back in Ghana. Unlike many of the younger resort workers who are happy to sleep on floors in exchange for free skiing or snowboarding and the chance to party the winter away, this trio will return to families in Africa.
They came here for work, not to shred the slopes.
“Their incentive is not to have free lift tickets,” La Rue says. “They are here to make money.”
But workers like Mathew Rawson, a recent college graduate from England, find the adventure and the lifestyle of resort work appealing. In his second season working at Alpine Meadows, the free snowboarding and experience of living in Tahoe is enough to more than balance out the hitchhiking and low wages.
“I love the adventure of it, to come out to the other side of the world to a place I didn’t have a clue about,” says Rawson, who paid almost $1,200 to get his work visa.
Julian Egea, who works in the office at Boreal Mountain Resort, is also happy to be in Tahoe. Despite spending the first part of the season with five other workers in a Kings Beach one-room apartment he called a “kitchen/living room/bedroom,” Egea says he’s happy to be taking a break from college in Argentina and spending some time in the United States.
Now Egea and his friend live in a house in Tahoe Donner where he has his own
The first months of the ski season Egea traveled to and from work in a car he and his friends bought in Reno. But last week the car broke down. So the crew rents a car for $300 a month so they don’t have to hitchhike.
In Truckee and North Tahoe, homes sit vacant all around the single room crammed with Samuel, Ed and Edmund’s mattresses. Many are occupied seasonally. Some only for a few weekends a year. Most are luxurious. Some are downright decadent.
But the wealth lavished around the ski mountains and resorts of the Sierra has not trickled down to the three Ghanaians or the many others like them.
They work in a multi-billion dollar industry, but the money flows elsewhere. While over the past years Tahoe ski resorts have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades, only one resort, Northstar-at-Tahoe, has plans to build more housing for its employees.
Worse, the international workers are on temporary visas, and the rules of the program create an underclass of labor that is nothing short of indentured servitude.
H2B visas are tied to employers and jobs. Workers are not free to take another job if they are mistreated. They are locked into their work by visa agreements.
And it’s a one-way relationship at some resorts. If it doesn’t snow, the resorts have no obligation to give the internationals work. The workers assume all the risks with no guaranteed rewards.
But by no means are all resorts equally exploitive of the cheap overseas labor. In fact, some area resorts are stepping up to the plate with both housing and transportation.
Unlike workers at most other resorts, Sugar Bowl employees can hop a bus after work that will drop them right at their doorstep ” a room that is owned and managed by the ski resort. The conditions at Donner Summit Lodge are not luxurious, but most workers have a choice of different room sizes.
Sugar Bowl workers can also live in 40 dorm-style beds at the resort or in one of the three houses the ski resort rents out to its employees.
At Northstar-at-Tahoe, employees have a pick of 60 beds near downtown Truckee. The resort has Placer County’s approval to build 96 more units near the slopes of the resort.
While Boreal and Soda Springs are small resorts, the company that owns them is a giant in the ski industry. In addition to the two small Donner Summit resorts, Powdr Corp owns Alpine Meadows, Park City in Utah and Mt. Bachelor in Oregon. In 2001, before the company bought Mt. Bachelor resort, Powdr Corp had revenues projected at more than $63 million by Forbes Magazine.
While company officials say Powdr Corp hasn’t budgeted for transportation or housing for its employees, it did have enough money to remodel its lodge and bar, Boreal Inn, add a skate bowl at the base of the mountain and transform the mountain into a large terrain park.
Boreal Inn rents out rooms for between $100 and $140 a night.
At Alpine Meadows, the company added a new high-speed chair lift for the season.
The plight of ski resort workers is nothing new in the area. But as North Tahoe and Truckee’s real estate markets continue to escalate, those who once were just scraping by are now hanging on by their fingernails.
“It’s been going on for years and it’s not getting any better,” says Rachelle Pellissier, executive director of the Workforce Housing Association of Truckee Tahoe.
Pellissier and other housing advocates have long urged companies to provide housing for their workers. With housing prices steadily increasing, the only way low-wage employees will have a place to live in the future is if employers, community organizations and governmental agencies get affordable housing on the ground, Pellissier says.
Others, like Esler, can think of more short-term solutions, like gauging the amount of international employees the resort will take in for the winter ” and then arranging leases beforehand.
For La Rue at Cultural Homestay International, one simple step needs to be resolved first.
“Without the transportation, forget it,” she says. “The transportation has been the No. 1 problem, and it is such an easy, solvable problem.”
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