Pay Check

It's been a good season for snow at Mount Washington—but not for workers

Mount Washington managers are loading lifts and bussing tables due to ongoing staff shortage. Part 4 of our series, Pay Check

By Andrew Findlay
March 29, 2022
Pay Check

It's been a good season for snow at Mount Washington—but not for workers

Mount Washington managers are loading lifts and bussing tables due to ongoing staff shortage. Part 4 of our series, Pay Check

By Andrew Findlay
Mar 29, 2022
Mount Washington at sunrise. Photo: Sergej Krivenko / Capital Daily
Mount Washington at sunrise. Photo: Sergej Krivenko / Capital Daily
Pay Check

It's been a good season for snow at Mount Washington—but not for workers

Mount Washington managers are loading lifts and bussing tables due to ongoing staff shortage. Part 4 of our series, Pay Check

By Andrew Findlay
March 29, 2022
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It's been a good season for snow at Mount Washington—but not for workers
Mount Washington at sunrise. Photo: Sergej Krivenko / Capital Daily

Dan Caley never expected to be pulling full day shifts loading the Boomerang chairlift at Mount Washington Alpine Resort over the Christmas break. During more than two decades working at the mountain, Caley had become a journeyman millwright and worked his way up to director of maintenance and facilities.

But during Christmas, it was all hands on deck—management included. 

“If you have a pulse, you can get a job up here right now,” Caley told a friend in the lift line who was surprised to see him loading chairs.

The usual numbers that stress out resort owners and operators are more familiar to skiers: low snowfall, temperatures that are too high or too low, ski lift waiting times that test skiers’ patience. But a new number has been keeping them up at night lately: a Canada-wide employee shortage, up to 30% for some operators, is plaguing the ski industry and has many resorts stretching staff, turning customers away from ski schools and cafes, cutting back retail hours and lift openings, and constantly plaguing operations.

In a normal ski season, Mount Washington employs 800 people. During winter it’s the 4th largest employer in the Comox Valley behind Canadian Forces Base Comox, School District 71, and North Island Hospital. However, in early February, the resort was still short 125 staff and hiring for almost all positions, from ski instructors and snow cat operators to dishwashers, cooks, and servers. Multiple job fairs have failed to plug the staffing gaps. 

Mike Manara, director of sports, retail, and guest services, says it’s been a challenging season so far dealing with ever shifting COVID-19 protocols and staffing shortages the likes of which few resorts have ever experienced. 

“Overall, it’s been tough. There’s a shortage in all departments,” says Manara, a ski industry veteran.

It means Manara has also been pressed into service loading chairlifts on busy days. So too has the resort’s general manager, Dean Prentice, who was often spotted bussing tables over the crowded Christmas break. 

In addition to upper management having to roll up their sleeves and hit the front lines, Manara says the resort has had to trim opening hours at the ski shop and close the kitchen at the Raven Lodge, which serves cross-country skiers and snowshoers. 

The pandemic is compounding the employee shortage. 

“COVID is wreaking havoc on us,” he says. “Some of our staff are working 14-hour shifts. That’s not sustainable. Some days we’ve had eight scheduled lift operators call in sick.”

Christopher Nicolson, President and CEO of the Canada West Ski Area Association, says helping resorts navigate COVID protocols is eating up most of his time. And he’s been hearing the same thing from resort operators and managers: help wanted ads are largely going unanswered in a job market that is hot across almost all sectors, not just tourism.

Nicolson says the challenges faced by his members are complicated. The cost and availability of housing at ski resorts and adjacent communities means employees can’t afford to live in their catchment areas. That problem has worsened with the pandemic-induced housing price boom.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people who own accommodations at resorts and may have rented them out in the past have taken their places out of the rental pool,” he says.

Getting foreign workers into the country through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, meanwhile, has been slower and therefore costlier than normal. It’s an important employee pipeline for many resorts, especially for recruiting well trained and experienced ski and snowboard instructors. However, according to Nicolson, the closing of Canadian consulates overseas due to COVID, and cumbersome online applications, haven’t helped.

Prior to opening a job to temporary foreign workers, an employer needs to demonstrate that there are no Canadians or permanent residents who can take the job, which means paying a consultant $1,000 to do a mandatory labour market impact assessment (LMIA) per prospective hire.

“It's something we need to do better at as an industry. The agricultural sector has done a much better job at advocating for temporary foreign workers,” Nicolson says. “I get it, the government is focused on the pandemic but at the same time it’s tough for employers when there’s help wanted signs everywhere, they can’t find enough staff to open fully during a four-month season and they still have to spend time and money demonstrating to government that there’s a need for foreign workers. It seems pretty redundant.”

Destination resorts that draw international clientele and staff have all been pummeled by the shortage in seasonal foreign workers.

“It varies around 30% [fewer] team members but this percentage is higher in food and beverage, housekeeping, and ski schools,” says Matt Mosteller, VP of marketing for Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which owns Fernie, Kicking Horse and seven other resorts in BC, Alberta, and Quebec. “It’s still a challenge with foreign workers and it’s not only about access for new employees but it’s also taking care of those still in-country so they can still work.”

Paul Pinchbeck, president and CEO of the Ontario-based Canadian Ski Council, says resorts are having to get creative to attract workers. For example, Ontario’s Blue Mountain Resort is offering $500 post-secondary education bursaries to attract and retain young staff.

“Resorts are having to focus on the safety side of things—ski patrol, lift maintenance,” Pinchbeck says. “And many of them can’t get meals to tables and beverages made.” 

Regional operators like Mount Washington are faring much better. The majority of Mount Washington skiers live on Vancouver Island and the mountain is far less dependent on foreign workers. But it’s not immune. Mount Washington’s snow school, similar to a lot of resorts, looks beyond Canada to fill out its roster with experienced and well-trained instructors. In a typical year the resort hires between 35 and 40 professional instructors under the temporary foreign worker program. However, this year the mountain brought in just six foreign pros. Manara blames escalating costs, of which the LMIA is just one consistent part, which includes demonstrating efforts to recruit indigenous and disabled staff. Employers are also required to pay for the flights and health insurance of foreign hires.  

“This needs to be completed prior to the visa being even considered. When you add in the cost of flights and insurance it can be up to $3,000 per instructor. It’s getting cost prohibitive,” he says.

Ski schools can be a big source of ski resort revenue, bringing families and new skiers to the mountain to learn the sport. When Mount Washington does well, many businesses in the Comox Valley, from ski shops to hotels and restaurants, also thrive.

The resort first opened for business in 1979 after Campbell River businessmen Alex Linton and Henry Norie bought land for a village from then-forestry giant Crown Zellerbach and installed the first lifts. Ten years later, the partners sold to another Vancouver Islander, George Stuart, and a group of shareholders. The new owners invested in more lifts, runs, and base area infrastructure, and ran the resort for 25 years. Following back-to-back dismal winters in 2013/2014 and 2014/2015, Stuart and his partners sold to Utah-based Pacific Group Resorts Inc. It was the company’s first investment in Canada, and Mount Washington joined its roster of obscure ski resorts that includes WISP in Maryland, Wintergreen Resort in Virginia, and New Hampshire's Ragged Mountain.

Despite the operational challenges of COVID-19, in many ways it’s a good time to be in the ski resort business on Vancouver Island. According to Manara, Mount Washington season-pass sales grew this year by 15%. Day ticket sales are up as well. On some busy weekends, parking lots are filled over capacity. In a few cases, customers have had to turn around and drive back down the mountain without getting on the snow.

At Ted’s Bar and Grill, Mount Washington’s flagship eatery in the main lodge, the burgers and beers have been flying out of the kitchen. 

The ski industry has long depended on an army of workers like server Erika Friese, willing to work for minimum wage, now $15.25/hour and set to rise to $15.65/hr in BC, and live the ski resort dream. Like a lot of BC communities, the Comox Valley rental pool is tight and increasingly expensive. In 2021, the vacancy rate in Courtenay sat at 1.1%. The average rent today for a one-bedroom apartment in this city is roughly $1,500 per month. 

Friese, now back for her third season, counts herself fortunate to have a place to rent on the mountain with her partner, a snowboard instructor. It spares the couple the daily commute by staff bus from the Comox Valley that a lot of resort employees face every day, making for long commutes.

But the short commute doesn’t make up for a steep drop in her take-home wages due to the pandemic. COVID-19 protocols prohibited table service at Ted’s up until mid-January, leading to a two-thirds reduction in the tips that make restaurant work pay better than a minimum wage job.

“It has really sucked,” Friese says.

A lot of serving staff didn’t return this year. Friese enjoys her fellow workers but is frustrated by management she believes have been indifferent to the challenges faced by frontline service workers.

“It’s impersonal. I don’t think I’ve worked for an employer who cares so little about their staff,” Friese says.

A look at Mount Washington reviews on Glassdoor reveals a similar theme: great staff and fun co-workers, but management that gets less than glowing reports from some anonymous reviewers. Still, for Friese the seasonal nature of the work dovetails well with a summertime tour business that she runs with her partner, so she came back. 

Manara says the resort understands how challenging the food and beverage sector has been for service workers. 

“I get why some people have chosen not to come back,” he says.

He contends, though, that the resort’s wages are competitive within the industry, and says that come budget time for next season, management will re-examine pay rates. For example, Manara says the resort pays Level III ski instructors $23/hr.

“But let’s face it, a lot of our jobs are entry level positions. If we increase wages a lot then the cost of skiing will go up,” he says, adding that he doubts that a $2 or $3 wage increase would do much to stem the exodus of people from the hospitality service sector. 

Gear and equipment allowances is another way the resort is sweetening the pot for employees. Staff housing at Mount Washington is an ongoing challenge, he says. Though the resort has no plans in the near term to build dedicated employee accommodations in the village, Manara says they are exploring the potential of long-term leases with private property owners. This season Mount Washington took a small step in this direction when it secured 20 beds at the non-profit society-owned Vancouver Island Mountain Centre, a building with bedrooms, meeting space and a communal kitchen across the parking lot from the Raven Lodge.

Despite some disgruntled and frustrated staff, resort life remains a big draw for a lot of people. Workers will put up with a lot for a season pass, deals on gear, free coffee, discounted food at the cafeteria and the chance to ski or snowboard every day—they’ll even come from across the world. Pere Baro, a 29-year-old snowboarder from Andorra, is having a fun season working as a liftee and living at the Mountain Centre for $600 per month. Andorra is a mountainous tax-free country smaller than Greater Victoria nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. In 2020, Canada signed a reciprocal working holiday agreement with Andorra, one of 36 countries with which Canada has such agreements. Baro obtained a one-year work permit through the federal government’s International Experience Canada Program that’s available to people between the ages of 18 and 30. 

As one of just a few applicants from Andorra, he says it was relatively easy. First he needed a job offer. After applying to a handful of Canadian resorts, Mount Washington responded.

“Once I had a job offer, I could start the visa application process,” says Baro, who is taking a year off from his day job in Andorra working for a firm that does slope-stability assessments for the construction industry.

Baro says he makes enough money to cover his food, accommodation and pay for activities. And when he’s not working, he snowboards. 

“I love it. I’m outside in the mountains and I can practice my English,” he says. 

“Whenever there’s overtime available, I take it.”

This season at Mount Washington, there’s no shortage of overtime work for those who want it. 

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