Gloria is a natural resource tourism professional and has years of experience working in the tourism industry and in seasonal jobs.
Coronavirus was announced as a pandemic by the World Health Organization Wednesday March 11th. Three days later, on Saturday March 14th, Disney announced the closing of their adventure parks due to the guidelines sent out by state and government officials. Each day more large events and large gatherings were cancelled due to recommendations of social distancing. Following the closing of Disney parks, ski resorts were criticized as being large gatherings of people that should definitely be shut down. However others argued that the act of skiing outdoors fully covered would not increase the spread of the virus.
The Decision to Close Down Ski Resorts
Ski resorts began to take precautions such as limiting seating in cafeterias, allowing guests to request private ski chairs, and quarantining any sick guests. But the panic around the virus became more and more intense as more countries closed their ski resorts and country borders to travel. Ski resorts attract tourists from all over the world. With many international guests at resort towns, ski resorts began to close one by one.
The first resort to announce a closing in the US was Altera's 15 resorts and Vail's 34 resorts on Saturday March 14th. They suspended operations and stated they would reevaluate opening one week from that Saturday. Shortly after the two companies suspended operations, Colorado's governor announced a plan to issue an executive order to close all of the states ski resorts. The weekend of March 14th and 15th then saw resort after resort making announcement like Vail's: suspending operations until further notice, but not a definite closing for the rest of winter season (AP News).
Big Sky Resort Announces Operations Suspended to Employees
Working at Big Sky resort, for example as a chair lift operator, an employee can see and be in contact with thousands of people from all over the world daily. With the closing of many other ski resorts around the world on Saturday March 14th, Big Sky did not take any action to inform employees of the situation at hand.
Big Sky Resort GM then announced, on Sunday March 15th in an employee wide email, that it would suspend operations for one week as they reevaluated the situation day by day. Food outlets and hotels were to remain open as guests were still staying at the resort. Employees were told in the email that they would be paid as they had ben scheduled through March 22nd, one week of pay from the decision to suspend operations.
The GM recommended in the email that those in employee housing to use "the next week" (6 days), to help transition and plan to return home as they "cannot guarantee what our needs will be going forward." The recipients had no certainty of further employment or even a future for the ski season.
The email ended by a false promise of hope that the resort looked forward to welcoming guests back as soon as conditions permitted.
Announcement of Employee Housing Closing
Five hours after the initial email from resort GM to employees, a second email was sent out, from the employee housing manager, saying that employee housing and resort lodging was closing March 22nd, that is, in six days.
Employees that were still scheduled to work in resort lodging would potentially exposed to the virus during work, with 4-5 confirmed cases of coronavirus, one in Gallatin County where Big Sky is located. Those lodging employees were also expected to find a place to live in 6 days and pack up in the midst of working for the resort.
Other ski resorts, such as Vail Resorts, recommended employees to move out of housing as soon as possible, but allowed up until March 27th (14 day notice). They also noted those who could not leave or didn't have any options were free to stay and be supported in the transitional phase (Vail Daily).
The day after the resort closed felt ominous, dark, and gloomy. It left many seasonal workers feeling lost as everyone all tried to come to terms with being jobless, and potentially homeless, on 6 days notice. Employee housing was bustling with people packing up their dorm rooms, packing their cars, and preparing to embark on a journey that would be unknown to some.
Would We Get Paid for Our Contracted Season?
When you sign on to work at a ski resort or any seasonal job, you usually sign a contract with start and end dates of employment. Most employees expect to get paid through the end date, of course if they do not get fired or quit. With unprecedented circumstances closing ski resorts early, what does that mean for employees who thought they were going to get paid through mid April? So many of these employees are international J1 visa international employees. Will they have enough money to return to their home country since the season ended unexpectedly early?
Each resort handled compensating laid off seasonal employees differently. Alta in Utah for example would pay employees for the rest of March, whereas four other Utah resorts were only paying employees for one week past the unexpected closure (Deseret).
Bridger Bowl Ski Area, a nonprofit ski area in Bozeman Montana ,will take the financial hit as they place morals and honor above profit and will pay employees through the original contracted closing date (nbcmontana).
Big Sky Resort is only going to be paying employees for one week of work after the unexpected closure. Some, such as the food, lodging, and housekeeping departments are still required to go to work and are all potentially exposed to the virus.
The Cost of Doing the Right Thing
During this strange time of the unknown, seasonal workers asked many questions as their lives got mixed up in the mess of coronavirus spreading; where to live, where to work, or, if they were international workers, whether they could even go home.
For ski resort owners, corporations, family-run mountains, or even nonprofits, what is the real expense of supporting your seasonal employees during hard times? Can these million-dollar corporations afford to have humanity?
It's one thing to lay people off; it's another to send employees who rely on your business for housing, security, and food as well as a job out to the world during times like this. Thousands of seasonal ski resort employees living in employee housing in Montana alone are about to be jobless, homeless, and without a wage, let go from multi-million-dollar businesses.
Timothy Ward from Bozeman, Montana on April 01, 2020:
Great article Gloria! It truly was a heartbreaking experience to have to say goodbye to so many friends and co-workers prematurely when all the resorts closed down. I hope things get back on track for summer season!
Liz Westwood from UK on March 24, 2020:
The coronavirus is causing hardship all round. Whilst I understand your argument for skiing outdoors as being safe, it's the social interaction that goes around it in lodges, chalets etc that poses the biggest risk. A businessman, who attended a conference in Singapore, went on a skiing holiday in Europe and infected all the occupants of his chalet. Some governments are trying to put measures in place to compensate workers who lose wages. I hope your government does this.