Con Games: Snow Job in Aspen Skico Pay Stinkeroo

As a former ski instructor and ex-AFL/CIO union treasurer--a very small club--I feel like it's incumbent upon me to put in my five pennies about the avalanche that has ensued from ski instructor Lee Mulcahy's complaints about pay for Aspen/Snowmass ski instructors.

Like him or not, Lee Mulcahy's courageous stand has thrown open the curtain of a very tough, very taxing profession. The image of the glamorous ski instructor is exactly that--an image and nothing more. I never met a ski instructor, good or bad, who didn't work like a dog to pile up cash during their money season. For most, it was a necessity and so shall it always be. And like professional athletes, the price paid is unrelenting wear and tear on your body, not to mention frequent bouts of mental and physical exhaustion.

The unnerving numbers bandied about by Mulcahy for this work are $69 for a beginning instructor on a gig that Aspen Skiing Company (Skico) bills out at $625. Skico countered by saying that (a) only a few beginners get paid so little; and (b) Skico employees are treated as well or better than any of their peers in the snow job industry.

They're both right: beginners get paid too little and Skico is a pretty decent employer.

Skico, it should be noted, has put its head in a noose by suspending Mulcahy without pay for handing out flyers and lobbying for higher pay in public--and for God knows what-all. Even before Mulcahy was put in the cooler, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had begun an investigation of Skico because they always investigate every complaint. Mulcahy and any other employee across the fruited plain have the legal right to organize, and Skico is prohibited from waylaying same. And there the matter uneasily rests.

As a labor guy 30 years ago, I was struck in the here-and-now by the contrast between Skico's response and what happened a few winters back at Smuggler's Notch in Vermont, where I worked two long seasons as a ski instructor for kids. Some ski instructors were very unhappy with management, and they had a list of grievances as long as your ski pole, but the powers that be at Smuggs--including, ironically, president Bob Mulcahy, no relation to Lee--had multiple meetings and group sessions with instructors that ironed things out amicably.

For the record, some months later I did a consulting job for Mulcahy on how to get first-timers back to the resort. But the thing that impressed me as a former labor guy at the time was the obvious one: management listened for real, made changes--including increased pay--and made just about every instructor feel better about their work and their company.

Cut to Skico. Skico's corporate arrogance is one of the sad truths that comes with living in the Roaring Fork Valley, so I expected the worst when I signed up for a brief stint as be a Skico ski instructor two winters back. The reality was a 180: I was not only impressed but actually amazed by the professionalism of the skiing and snowboarding instuctors I met and saw in action. If you had a problem, they always helped you out, and they took the job very seriously. On the whole, from what I saw first-hand, I think the Skico skiing and snowboarding instructors do an incredible job. Smuggs is universally considered the best ski school for kids, but I came away convinced Skico had done them one better.

My advice? Skico could do worse than to listen to Mulcahy's complaints and actually raise the amount made by beginning instructors. He's right: the beginners are getting jobbed--even if that doesn't make Aspen Skiing Company a bad employer.