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Whitefish Mountain Resort Employees Push for Change After Racist Encounter

Protesters including current and former employees gathered near Chair 1 Sunday, dismayed at resort’s initial response to a staff member who allegedly referred to a Black employee by the n-word

By Andy Viano
Mariah Rine, an employee of Whitefish Mountain Resort, speaks to a group of about 30 protesters gathered near Chair 1 on March 21, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Current and former Whitefish Mountain Resort (WMR) employees protested at the mountain on March 21 to raise awareness of what they call the resort’s tolerance of “racism and sexism,” which came to a head last month when an employee allegedly used the n-word in front of a Black co-worker.

Mariah Rine, 27, a seasonal lift worker at the resort, was at an on-mountain bar with a friend and a co-worker after a shift in late February. Rine says that during a conversation about equal representation, the co-worker — who was still in uniform at the time — turned to her and said, “Well, we have a (n-word) right here that works on the mountain, so what are you complaining about?”

Rine said she reported the incident the following morning to her supervisors in the lift department, and had subsequent conversations with resort management, including a meeting with WMR Chief Executive Officer Dan Graves. Despite her complaints, Rine said she initially felt unheard by management and thought the purpose of her meeting with Graves was “to help them shut (her) up.”

“They figure this is seasonal work, we’ll leave, he’ll bring in a new group of people next year and everyone will forget about this,” Rine said. “But the thing is, things are changing very rapidly in this world as a whole … and this isn’t going anywhere.”

In an email to the Beacon, Graves disputed Rine’s characterization of the meeting.

“The intention of the meeting with Mariah was not to ‘shut her up,’” he wrote. “It was to engage with her in conversation about the incident.”

WMR spokeswoman Maren McKay said the resort would not comment further on any specific meetings with Rine, but wrote that management staff had spoken with Rine on multiple occasions and that she was asked to “confirm in a written statement exactly what happened.” As of March 22, McKay said the resort had received no “formal statement” from Rine or any witnesses. The incident occurred after work hours and at a location not operated by the resort.

A group of about 30 protesters gather near Chair 1 at Whitefish Mountain Resort on March 21, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Sunday, March 21, Rine and several current and former co-workers decided to draw attention to what they saw as the resort’s inaction by staging a protest and sit-in between Chair 1 and Chair 2. Around 30 people gathered there for several hours, and both Rine and resort management confirmed the event was peaceful. Organizers said the protest was intended to “raise awareness of the racism and sexism being tolerated on the policy-making level” at the resort.

“Repeated incidents of verbal abuse, slurs and microaggressions have negatively impacted past and present employees’ mental health, safety and desire to be at WMR,” they wrote in a press release.

The protest prompted a public response from the resort, which sent out its own press release Sunday afternoon stating that it became aware of the planned protest on March 17 and “responded immediately with changes that are already in place.” That press release followed an email sent to employees on March 18 from senior management staff that outlined the action the resort would be taking in response to the protesters’ complaints.

But in the days before the protest, organizers including Rine said the resort’s response came too late, and that senior employees knew about their grievances weeks ago, beginning the morning after the slur was used. Graves, in fact, emailed the lift department staff on March 5, saying he had just become aware of an incident involving racist language and that he should have been informed sooner “considering the severity of the topic.”

“If you take nothing else away from this note, it should be that racism in any form is abhorrent and is an offense to the culture of this resort,” Graves wrote. “It will not be tolerated.”

Graves went on to share that the employee who used the slur would be disciplined but that he could not disclose the details of that discipline. The WMR employee handbook allows for the company to initiate disciplinary action, “up to and including termination of employment” in response to employee harassment.

The employee who used the slur against Rine was disciplined but has since returned to work, according to McKay, although she also would not comment on what discipline was levied. Rine said the employee was present for her meeting with Graves and that the employee apologized.

About 30 protesters gather near Chair 1 at Whitefish Mountain Resort on March 21, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For Rine, whatever discipline the employee could or should receive was not her primary concern. She and other current and former employees interviewed for this story said they at times felt uncomfortable and unwelcome, and that the resort’s slow response to Rine’s complaint only reinforced that belief.

“It is about the culture … and the fact that he felt so comfortable and free to say that because he knew he would still have a job,” Rine said. “What I want to see is for him to be retrained, for him to be a part of these conversations and to maybe open up and try to see someone else’s perspective, because it’s way bigger than him.”

As for the resort going forward, organizers detailed five demands ahead of their protest, and the resort addressed each one in an email to employees on March 18, pledging to make a number of changes. Those changes include immediately adding “stronger zero tolerance language” to its employee handbook and hiring a consultant to oversee training programs for all levels of resort staff, which has already been done. WMR will also be forming a committee to address diversity, equity and inclusion (protesters had asked for a full-time employee in that role) and pledged to “cast a wider net” to create “the diverse workforce we want.”

In a statement to the Beacon the day after the protest, Graves expressed his specific support for the changes outlined in the email.

“We know there is work to do across our society on this topic and we are committed to doing our part and following through on the plan we laid out to employees last week,” he wrote.

Rine, who was back at work as a liftie on Monday, said she was pleased with the resort’s response in recent days and expressed optimism that the kind of change she’s advocating for could be on the horizon.

“I think we’re in a more positive place and we want to continue that and show the mountain that we respect them and we love it here,” Rine said. “We’re just wanting to make it a good place for all of us.”

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