Aspen ski instructor suspended after protest
December 31, 2010
ASPEN – The Aspen Skiing Co. suspended one of its ski instructors Thursday after he passed out fliers on Skico property that were critical of the company’s owners and its pay for beginning instructors.
The instructor, Lee Mulcahy, said he distributed the fliers at the Skico-owned Little Nell Hotel and in the Silver Queen Gondola plaza in Aspen Thursday morning before he went to work teaching a private lesson at Snowmass Ski Area.
After the lesson, he said he resumed passing out fliers to people at the base of the Elk Camp Gondola in Snowmass. According to Mulcahy, Jim Laing, Skico vice president of human resources, asked him to stop passing out the fliers and to talk to him about his actions.
“He followed me around while I distributed the fliers,” Mulcahy said. “He wasn’t happy.”
Mulcahy said he told Laing he couldn’t stop because he needed to complete his task and he wanted his team leader present. In the ski school’s hierarchy, a team leader is the direct supervisor to a small cell of instructors.
Once the team leader was present, Mulcahy said he met with Laing and was informed he was suspended. Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle confirmed that Mulcahy was suspended with pay and benefits.
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Hanle said that Mulcahy will be paid for the private lessons he was booked to teach “while there is no change in his status.”
Hanle said he couldn’t discuss the personnel matter further. “There is an investigation ongoing,” he said.
Hanle said Skico officials were alerted at 8 a.m. that Mulcahy was distributing the fliers in the lobby of the Little Nell Hotel. He was also allegedly pushing the fliers under the doors of guest rooms. Hanle said Mulcahy was asked to leave the hotel.
Mulcahy said he also passed out fliers to passers-by in the gondola plaza and placed them on windshields of vehicles parked on Durant Avenue in front of the hotel. He also placed fliers on the windshield of an Audi parked in the plaza as part of a promotion. Audi is one of the prime corporate partners of the Skico. As such, some of its vehicles are parked in the gondola plaza during high traffic times. Thursday was one of the busiest days on the slopes.
Mulcahy said he kept putting fliers on the Audi while he was making his rounds and found them removed when he returned. He estimated he put six fliers on the sponsorship Audi.
All told, Mulcahy estimated he handed out 200 fliers in Aspen and Snowmass Village Thursday.
Mulcahy said part of his verbal suspension also alleged that he was discussing conditions and pay for Skico employees while he was on the clock and in a Skico facility. He acknowledged that he was telling his ski school student about his protest over pay for beginning instructors on Thursday. The client was purchasing a lift ticket in a private lesson lounge at Snowmass, where they can avoid lift lines. While they were in the lounge, Mulcahy and his student discussed Mulcahy’s protest of Skico policies.
Mulcahy said Laing informed him that Skico would investigate that alleged conversation. Mulcahy contends that conservation was protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
The flier distribution is the latest salvo in what Mulcahy considers a battle to force the Skico owner, the Lester Crown family of Chicago, and Skico management to pay beginning instructors better.
The flier has a big, bold headline saying, “Greed?” Smaller type says, “Cost of Private Lesson: $625. Labor payment to least paid instructors: $69. Fair?”
Mulcahy has complained about the pay in recent letters to the editor of both newspapers and in e-mails with other instructors. He has also formed an organization, People For a Living Wage, to press the issue.
Mulcahy himself is a veteran instructor in the ski school’s second highest pay grade, so the issue doesn’t directly affect him. He said he is pursuing the issue as “social justice.”
In an interview last week, Laing said the pay rate Mulcahy is targeting applies to less than 2/10ths of 1 percent of the lessons provided by the ski school. The company employs about 1,200 instructors. Mulcahy picked the lowest pay grade, one that doesn’t apply to many instructors, and he didn’t look at the entire package paid by Skico, Laing said previously. He noted that the company provides reasonably priced housing for many entry-level employees, subsidizes bus passes and makes health care coverage available for seasonal workers.
Laing said internal and third-party surveys indicate Skico employees like working for the company. Outside Magazine named the Skico one of the top employers in 2010, based on the results of a independent survey.
The Skico contends it has “the best total compensation package for pros, including pay and benefits, in the entire industry,” according to a previous letter to the editor submitted by Katie Ertl, managing director, Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen/Snowmass. “The average hourly rate paid to pros during the 2009/2010 season for all products combined was more than twice the industry average per the National Ski Area Association Survey.”
In summary, her letter said the Skico charges less and pays its instructors more than its key competitors.
Mulcahy said the Skico’s justification of the beginning salary is a moot point to him. The real issue is that beginning instructors allegedly aren’t making a “living wage,” he said.
The fliers he distributed take the Crowns to task at a time when many of the family members are in town for the holidays. The flap is inevitably an embarrassment to top Skico managers.
In the flier, Mulcahy notes that Forbes magazine estimated Lester Crown’s fortune at $4.1 billion. He alleged in the flier that the Crown family gave $1 million to United Way’s Tocqueville Society, which is working to maintain jobs that pay a living wage.
“We encourage the Crowns to be more responsible socially and put their money where their mouth is,” the flier says.
Mulcahy first started speaking out about Skico corporate responsibility issues in May 2010. He claimed he has faced retaliation for writing letters to the local newspapers about Skico issues and for discussing possible formation of a union with other instructors. The Skico denies he has faced any retaliation.
Mulcahy filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in Denver, contending his rights under the labor act were violated. The federal agency is investigating to see if his charges have merit. If so, a formal complaint or complaints could be filed and hearings held. A determination is expected in January.
Hanle said Thursday the Skico stands by its earlier statements that it has done nothing wrong. It is cooperating fully with the NLRB investigation, he said.