Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrollers File Petition to Unionize

Employees hope to work with resort officials to create more opportunity for wage growth, annual gear stipends and benefits as the cost of living rises and veteran patrollers exit the field

By Maggie Dresser
The Whitefish Mountain Resort ski patrol practices a chairlift rescue during a training session on Nov. 26, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Whitefish Mountain Resort (WMR) ski patrollers this week announced they have filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union representation election.

Known as an “RC petition,” which must be filed whenever employees or labor organizations wish to unionize, representatives of the local ski patrol said they hope it will result in unionization of their department. Specifically, the employees cited a desire for wage growth, benefits and an annual gear stipend negotiation to compensate for the Flathead Valley’s high cost of living and rising costs of personal equipment. There’s also a growing concern surrounding high turnover as some employees exit the field for financial reasons.

Filing as the Whitefish Mountain Resort Professional Ski Patrol, 77% of eligible ski patrollers have signed the petition and organizers hope mountain management will voluntarily recognize the union. A petition requires at least 30% of signatures in the potential bargaining unit, according to the NLRB.

Committee organizers said the resort has until next week to provide a statement of position.

In an email to the Beacon, WMR officials said they are still evaluating how to proceed.

“We were informed of this effort Monday morning and are just beginning to process what it may mean for the resort,” WMR officials said. “We value our ski patrol and what it brings to our overall operation, and we intend to work to chart the best path forward.”

If resort officials do not voluntarily recognize the department as a union, the patrol will vote in a NLRB election. The union is part of the United Professional Ski Patrols of America, which represents more than 700 ski patrollers and lift maintenance crews at nine resorts across the West.

According to the NLRB, WMR ski patrollers on Feb. 12 filed the RC petition representing 31 full-time and part-time staff, excluding supervisory and managerial employees.

In the event that WMR ski patrollers win their election, a contract could be finalized by next season, according to union organizers.

Hannah Farrell, a ski patroller in her fourth season, started organizing with a committee of seven patrollers at the beginning of the season with hopes of forming a union that would bring long-term changes to the department.

“We really want to continue having a professional and supportive culture not just coming from the patrol – but from upper management, too,” Farrell said.

Currently, ski patrol rookies are offered a starting wage of $18 per hour, which Farrell acknowledged represents a significant jump up from the $13 per hour rate she started at four years ago. But she says there is wage compression for veteran patrollers.

For example, Farrell makes $19.90 per hour in her fourth season as a level-two patroller with more certificates and qualifications than when she started, only $1.90 per hour more than rookies.

A patroller clears ice and snow off a sign at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. Beacon file photo

Employees also receive a gear stipend of roughly $700 every three years for equipment that undergoes significant wear and tear throughout each season, she said. Patrollers would like to see that stipend distributed annually.

Additionally, Farrell said the resort does not offer any health benefits, sick days or paid time off, and they hope to at least receive a health stipend.

Nick Friedman, a fourth-year patroller and union organizer, said that high turnover of experienced employees concerns him, and he hopes a union will help retain valuable workers and mentors who can continue passing down knowledge to younger patrollers.

“The biggest thing for me personally is the retention of knowledgeable and skilled employees,” Friedman said. “I’ve seen a lot of turnover in four seasons.”

WMR employees follow a growing trend of unionization among ski patrols, including Eldora Mountain Resort in Colorado where patrollers filed a petition last fall. Other unionized ski patrols include Aspen Snowmass, Breckenridge Resort, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Purgatory Resort and Park City Mountain. Big Sky Resort unionized in 2021 after winning their election.

If its petition is successful, the Whitefish Mountain Resort Professional Patrol would join the Big Sky Professional Ski Patrol as the only unionized ski patrollers in Montana.

“It seems like it has been extremely positive at Big Sky, and it has improved working conditions,” Farrell said. “They feel they are compensated and they have a seat at the table.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the union membership rate was 10% in 2023, with little change from the previous year and the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions was 14.4 million. In 1983, the first year that comparable data was available, the union membership rate was 20.1% and there were 17.7 million union workers.

In 2023, the highest unionization rates were among workers in education, training and library occupations representing 32.7%. Protective service occupations, which includes ski patrol along with first responders and law enforcement, represent 31.9%.

The mean hourly wage for protective service occupations in 2023 was $25.97.

“We feel we need a union because we care about guest safety and we want compensation for our experience and labor,” Farrell said. “We love our jobs, and we take pride in all aspects of it. We are helping people on the worst days of their lives.”