Waiting for snow, waiting for work | SierraSun.com

Waiting for snow, waiting for work

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun
Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunThe lack of snow has left many resort employees in a tight fix as there is little available work and rent is still due. Here Chris Birdsall, Mike McCullah, and Aaron James hold down the porch at the Squaw Valley Employee Housing with only rain in sight.
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Ski resort employees are not eyeing the weather forecast for only the anticipation of taking to the slopes for the season’s first ski runs.

In the Sierra, winter recreation depends on snow. So, a heavy snowstorm also represents a paycheck to the region’s lift operators, ski patrolmen and ski school instructors.

“It’d be nice to be working right now,” said Warren Hepworth, a 21-year-old university graduate from Melbourne, Australia, who arrived in Tahoe last week to live the life of a Squaw Valley lift operator for the season.

A third of Squaw’s 600 new hires have yet to receive full-time schedules, said resort spokeswoman Savannah Cowley. But that’s typical for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when hopes often outstrip early-season snowfall.

“It’s a notoriously slow season in the ski industry,” Cowley said.

For the most part, seasonal employees are well aware that they are not guaranteed hours until the holiday business picks up, said Dave Pierce, Squaw’s director of lift operations.

“Most of them are prepared to just sit back in their two-bedroom condos and just watch football,” he said.

Sara York, a 24-year-old from Massachusetts, said she’s anticipating working at Squaw kids ski school, as much to fill the time productively than for the paycheck. York said she saved up enough money to carry herself through the slow shoulder season.

“I feel so lazy right now,” she said.

Hepworth, who also saved enough money to cover travel expenses, four-months’ rent and initial living costs, said he’s passing the time by exploring the area, visiting San Francisco on one of his forays.

“We’re not doing too much in terms of going out and spending too much,” he said.

But restless frustration hangs in the air, especially at Squaw’s employee hostel, Hepworth said.

“They’re all getting quite frustrated [at the hostel] and running amok,” he said.

Several of the hostel’s current residents said they’re strapped for cash and are picking up some extra dollars by playing music in grocery store parking lots.

“All you can do is play music in the streets,” said Matthew Nicholls from Yuba City, who is staying at the hostel. “We’re living on tips from playing drums.”

Mike McCullah, another hostel resident, said he picked up a few hours working as a janitor at High Camp.

“I was originally hired as a lift [operator],” McCullah said while smoking a cigarette on the hostel’s front porch. “But as soon as I got here and realized there was no snow, I got on as a janitor at High Camp.”

Squaw Valley is not charging its employees staying at the hostel any lodging fees, Cowley said. The majority of Squaw’s fresh crop of employees, especially the international hires, are just starting to arrive, said Pierce, who traveled to South America and Australia to recruit students.

Squaw hires just enough lift operators to distribute full-time hours across the board when all of the chairs are running, he said. Until then, the hours are distributed on a part-time basis.

“We make them fully aware that we don’t control the weather,” Pierce said. “But all that being said, I feel a huge responsibility. They’ve traveled so far, and I want to make that experience as positive as possible.”