Aspen Skiing Co. helps its workers weather the slow start

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Aspen Skiing Co. revived an effort Tuesday to take care of its own at a tough time.

Skico offered free dinner at Bumps Restaurant at the base of Buttermilk to employees who had their work schedule altered because of lack of snow.

“We had 88 people there,” said Jim Laing, Skico vice president of human resources and retail operations. “With social media, word just got out fast.”

The diners were predominantly seasonal employees who are new in town and scraping by on limited funds, he said. There were also a handful of longtime Skico workers present. Some workers have had their hours reduced; others haven’t been needed yet. Many employees are going through training related to their positions – ranging from the proper way to load a chairlift to learning about the merchandise in Skico’s Four Mountain Sports stores to guest services at a hotel. They get paid for that training, Laing said.

Skico has a history of feeding employees at Bumps when the season gets off to a slow start. Dinners have been offered about six times in the past 15 years, Laing said. The last time dinner was served for a stretch to start the season was five years ago.

Laing said it was obvious that the workers who showed up for dinner Tuesday night appreciated it.

“The level of astonishment is high,” Laing said. The new workers initially were unaware that the company brass – CEO and President Mike Kaplan; David Perry, mountain division senior vice president; Laing and others – were serving food. They quickly learned that their bosses were providing a helping hand.

The dinners will be served “until we resume normal operations – normal for this time of year,” Laing said. There will be some exceptions. Bumps already was booked to hold Skico employee preseason meetings Wednesday night this week and next Wednesday.

Even with a limited start to ski season, thanks to Mother Nature, Skico will employ the same number of workers as the past several seasons, according to Laing. The company didn’t pare down when the recession peaked during the 2008-09 winter. It hired fewer people but only because more people wanted full-time jobs. However, it isn’t eliminating positions.

“We have not in any way reduced our commitment to guest services,” he said.

Pre-recession, when unemployment was virtually nonexistent in the Aspen area, a person might split time between working guest services with Skico and working in real estate, for example. Now, with jobs scarce, more people want as many hours as they can get with Skico. That results in hiring fewer bodies to fill an equal number of positions.

Laing said he thought it might be slightly harder to find employees this winter because the economy seems to be improving slowly. But there was no problem filling positions. Many local residents were still looking for work, he said. There are a few positions still open.

“We’re just filling in around the edges, so to speak,” he said.

At peak season during Christmas and New Year’s Day, Skico will employ 3,700 people, including temporary workers, Laing said. About 2,400 of those workers will be on-mountain at the four ski areas. The others work in Skico’s hospitality division, and the remainder are Skico’s full-time, year-round staff.

Skico isn’t relying on foreign workers to fill on-mountain positions. Four years ago, the company hired 400 workers using the H-2B visa program. The company gets the temporary work permits, and workers apply to fill the positions. This season, only two or three positions will be filled that way to secure workers who speak specific languages, Laing said.