New Mexico ski areas deal with hiring, snow and COVID-19 challenges ahead of opening days

·4 min read

Nov. 20—The nationwide worker shortage goes all the way to 10,000 feet.

Northern New Mexico ski areas have had to scramble to bring on enough employees to open in the latter days of November. But they say they now have the people they need for the limited operations typical of the early season.

"It's been a tremendous challenge," said Christiana Hudson, marketing manager at Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort and Pajarito Mountain Ski Area. "We've seen a significant drop in interest."

Sipapu eventually hired a full complement of 29 people to open Friday, and, as is usually the case, was the first New Mexico ski area to open. Pajarito Mountain relies entirely on natural snow, so its opening is not expected until about Dec. 16, Hudson said.

Ski Santa Fe will open with 230 employees, 130 hired in a recent job fair. Usually, it has about 300 to 350, general manager Ben Abruzzo said.

"We have enough people to open right now," said Abruzzo, adding a Thanksgiving Day opening is still penciled into the books if not committed to ink. "I'll know that for sure on Monday."

International student workers who are employed at New Mexico ski areas were not allowed to enter the country last year but they will be back this year as the season ramps up, said George Brooks, director of Ski New Mexico.

"We will still be a couple hundred people short around the state," Brooks said about the season as a whole.

Taos Ski Valley revamped its human resources policies to lure workers to the resort. New Mexico's largest ski area raised its entry wage for all jobs to $15 an hour and for the first time is offering accident insurance to employees, marketing director Tania McCormack said.

Taos Ski Valley did not disclose how many people it hired but did say all operations were reevaluated to find ways to function with fewer employees. McCormack said there are fewer employees for the scheduled Thanksgiving opening day than in 2019.

"We got way ahead of it," McCormack said, referring to the worker shortage. "People are picky. What is a well-rounded hiring offer package? Everything across the board was tweaked."

This included adding affordable worker housing, now numbering 70 rooms and 100 beds with plans to add 40 more rooms.

"Our HR team put a lot of work around it," McCormack said. "It wasn't easy. There was training so we could do hiring a new way."

The start of ski season faces not only presented hiring challenges but also snow and coronavirus-related difficulties.

Whatever September snow whitened the mountains is now long gone. Ski areas have relied on snowmaking to outfit a couple runs at each area.

"Right now the biggest challenge is weather," Brooks said. "The biggest factor with weather is temperature. Right now temperature is affecting us more than snow."

Sipapu reports a 16-inch base, but no other New Mexico ski area reported any base on Friday. The prospects don't look promising for the next week, and ski resorts will have to rely on snowmaking for Thanksgiving weekend openings.

"Through Thanksgiving weekend, there is a chance of snow in the northern mountains," National Weather Service technician Troy Marshall said. "Right now, it's kind of hard to say how much they will get. It doesn't look like much."

Sipapu opened with one lift and only two of its 43 runs open. Snowmaking has been a challenge with many warm nights in November.

Ski Santa Fe will open with Chair 1 and only one main run open, plus the beginner area, Abruzzo said.

"In New Mexico, things can happen quickly," he said. "You can go from not much open to everything open in three days."

Taos Ski Valley gave no indications how many lifts or runs will be open Thanksgiving Day.

"We are still working on that," McCormack said. "It will be limited."

COVID-19 last season limited the number of skiers to one-third capacity, and masks were required everywhere. This year, masks are required indoors but not on chairlifts or ski slopes, and there are no limitations on the slopes.

But Taos Ski Valley's four resort-owned restaurants will require reservations and proof of vaccination to eat indoors. No reservations or vaccinations are needed to eat outdoors, McCormack said.

The challenges of the 2021-22 season are not out of the ordinary for the ski industry, Brooks said.

"I think the first thing to say is the ski industry as a whole is resilient," Brooks said. "Over many years the industry has had to deal with lots of situations."

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