Around 2017, Jonathan Cernanec and Patrick Hansen decided they were done working engineering jobs that made them miserable. They left those gigs and joined Keystone Ski Resort’s ski patrol—and the new roles immediately delivered everything the 20-somethings felt like they’d been missing: a chance to solve problems, help people, work on a team, and, yes, ski lots of powder.

But in addition to learning how to haul sleds loaded with injured passengers, clear avalanche terrain, evacuate chairlifts, and act as EMTs on skis, the two were also introduced to the “starve to carve” mentality. Pay started at less than $12 an hour, barely enough to scrape by in Summit County. Now four years into the job, Cernanec recently discovered his hourly pay for a job that involves saving lives matches that of a friend who works at a deli counter.

He’s seen that low pay leave many people scrambling for reasonable living conditions. He knows coworkers who have been forced to share rooms well into their 30s, including at least one set of bunkbeds, another person who “lives literally in a cupboard under the stairs,” and five others who sleep in vans. He and Hansen once considered paying 80 percent of their monthly income for a one-bedroom place that would have left one of them sleeping behind a curtain in the dining room. At this point, he expects that financial safety, buying a house, and starting a family will require moving away.

“It can get you so bummed out, knowing the inevitability of having to leave this place,” Cernanec says. “Every time I look out the window at the mountains now, I’m like, Ah, damn, the clock is ticking. At some point you’re going to need to move on, or else you’re going to get stuck, and be economically ruined.”

That feeling caused Cernanec to reach out to members of the ski patrol union at Park City Mountain in Utah to see if collective bargaining could help turn a job he loved into a more sustainable career. He and other patrollers at Keystone, which is owned by Vail Resorts, considered forming a union this year, but ultimately voted 42-36 against that step. A little over a month later, however, ski patrollers at Breckenridge Ski Resort, another Vail property, narrowly approved starting a union. Though they landed at different outcomes, patrollers at both resorts say work needs to be done to address stagnant wages in the industry, which make it difficult to retain seasoned patrollers who know how to better protect and provide medical care to guests.

“It’s a passionate group of people who want to ski patrol, and they want to stick around and a lot of them want to make it a career,” Hansen says. “Not everybody does, but a lot of people do. And that’s in direct conflict with the way Vail Resorts sees the job. They want three years and done, because after that people get too expensive. In my eyes, that’s the main place where patrol and Vail aren’t seeing eye-to-eye. We want to stick around a long time, and they don’t want us here.”

Keystone and Breckenridge patrollers—as well as those at Big Sky Resort, who voted to unionize in April—worked with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) throughout the unionization process. The CWA houses the United Professional Ski Patrols of America, which includes unions at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Steamboat Ski Resort, Telluride Ski Resort, Park City Mountain in Utah, and Stevens Pass in Washington. Patrollers at the four resorts near Aspen have an independent union.

At Keystone, supervisors, a group that Hansen says included eight to 10 people who make decisions about things like hiring, didn’t learn about the possibility of a union until a petition to vote on whether to establish one was submitted. (If a simple majority decides to form a union, employees immediately become a collective bargaining unit and are able to negotiate for wage increases and benefits as a group.) Because of high turnover on the patrol, many of those supervisors had been on the lower rungs of the team just a year or two earlier. If the patrol unionized, they would have found themselves on opposite sides of negotiations from many of their friends. “I think that was the biggest wedge, and soured the whole thing,” Hansen says.

Vail has made the case that communication would be better without a union. After Keystone’s vote failed, the company’s press statement cheered the outcome “as it ensures we can continue to build strong relationships with Keystone Ski Patrollers through open and direct dialogue.”

At Park City Mountain (also owned by Vail) patrollers say unionization, which was approved of in 2015, has allowed them negotiate a clear payment structure that incentivizes employees to seek higher-level positions and get additional training, like becoming an EMT or an avalanche dog trainer. Advanced patrollers can make up to $24 an hour. A merit-based system for pay and promotions can also help keep more women in a job that is three-quarters men, according to the Park City patrollers. Caressa Pratt, a spokesperson for the Park City patrollers union, says these measures, “make the job worth coming back to.”

Keystone and Breckenridge both previously had ski patrol unions that dissolved in the early 2000s. Patrollers at Beaver Creek and Monarch Mountain have also both previously voted on whether to unionize and decided against it. Joe Naunchik, president of the ski patrol union at Park City, says every winter they hear from patrollers elsewhere who have questions about unionizing but struggle to get through the paperwork and an election before resorts close. “The seasonal nature works against us,” he says.

In response to the vote at Breckenridge, Vail Resorts circulated a statement from the mountain’s outgoing patrol director, Kevin Ahern, who worked at the resort for 40 years. “As I told our patrollers, while I personally believe, and know from experience, that unionizing is the wrong choice, I will respect their decision,” Ahern’s statement reads. “However, what is troubling to me is that only about one-third of our patrollers voted for the union.”

A written statement from Vail Resorts pointed out that same concern: “We are disappointed with the outcome of this exceptionally close vote and are particularly concerned about the impact it will have on our patrol given that out of 114 patrollers, only 43 actually voted for union representation, with 42 voting against.” The other 29 members of the team abstained from voting.

At both resorts, patrollers are now concerned with how to move forward. The team at Breckenridge is currently considering who should be in union leadership and what issues they want to be a part of their first contract negotiations. “We all want what’s best for this patrol, our leadership included,” says Beau Sibbing, who helped organize at Breckenridge. “We all have different ideas on how to get that done, and that’s why we held a vote, and the union won, and that’s what we’re going to go forward with.”

A statement from Vail released after Keystone’s vote reads: “We all agree there is more work to do, and we look forward to working directly together to improve the employee experience through efforts including the company-wide Patrol Project.”

The Patrol Project convenes ski patrol representatives from all 37 Vail resorts. Meetings started during the 2019-’20 season, but the effort was largely shelved until near the end of this season, according to Hansen, who previously represented Keystone on the panel. Some patrollers at Keystone indicated they wanted to see how that effort played out before unionizing.

“The stage is set now. We voted no because Vail said, ‘We can do better,’” Hansen says. “If in two seasons nothing has changed, then I think it’s going to be a much stronger effort for people to form a union.”

The National Labor Relations Board requires groups to wait a year after a failed vote to hold a repeat election. That would likely push another vote at Keystone, if the issue re-emerges, to the 2022-’23 season. Cernanec doesn’t think he’ll have the chance to participate by then. He expects to have either switched careers or moved into a leadership role on the patrol, leaving him out of unionization talks. For now, he’s focused on efforts he doesn’t have to wait two years for.

“I did it because I thought it would be good for patrol, and everything I do following the ‘no’ vote will be things that will be good for our patrol,” he says. “There are more ways to improve this job and improve our lives.”

Editor’s note 5/25/2021: Vail Resorts communications, which staff declined an interview request for this story, contacted 5280 after its publication to request clarifications that advanced ski patrollers at Keystone and Breckenridge also make $24 an hour and that the Patrol Project’s shutdown in 2020 for a year was a result of COVID-19 closures.