Aspen Skiing Co. fires rogue ski instructor
ASPEN – The Aspen Skiing Co. fired ski instructor Lee Mulcahy on Monday in the latest chapter of a very public and bitter dispute between the former top-producing teacher and his employer.
The Skico took the unusual step of releasing a statement from President and CEO Mike Kaplan to its employees and the media outlining why it fired Mulcahy. Personnel decisions are usually very discreet. In the statement, Kaplan said Mulcahy “no longer meets the standards required to be a ski pro with the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen.”
Kaplan said Mulcahy’s distribution of fliers in The Little Nell hotel criticizing the Crown family, owners of the hotel and Skico, and bad-mouthing Skico’s ski school pay policies while he was in uniform were the “final straw in a long history of blatant violations of our policies and a failure to exercise good judgment, the most important requirements of any employee.”
Mulcahy slipped fliers under doors of guest rooms at the hotel and he distributed them in the hotel’s dining room Dec. 30. He also distributed fliers in the Silver Queen Gondola Plaza to skiers and riders during what was one of the busiest days of the ski season. The fliers criticized the Crowns for allegedly not paying a living wage at Skico despite making so much money off the private lessons.
Mulcahy was suspended with pay for about one week, then suspended without pay for about three weeks.
Kaplan claimed Mulcahy’s firing wasn’t an effort to quiet a rogue employee.
“If anyone is concerned that this decision somehow stifles freedom of expression, I can assure you that is not the case,” his statement said. “Again, our track record speaks for itself as we have often been criticized publicly by our employees and we have never taken disciplinary action against those individuals.”
Mulcahy surprised and angry
Skico officials informed an attorney representing Mulcahy in recent meetings with the Skico about the decision Monday and he said he would tell Mulcahy, according to Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. But Mulcahy said he was unaware of the decision when contacted by The Aspen Times at 5:05 p.m. Monday.
“You’re kidding,” he said when informed he was terminated.
Mulcahy added, “Judging from the history of tolerance of the Aspen Skiing Company, yes. How can it not be?”
Mulcahy said he finds if difficult to believe a company in America can first suspend, then fire an employee for speaking out against company policies.
In a statement he e-mailed to The Aspen Times, Mulcahy raised the prospect that he might have sealed his fate by repeatedly mentioning Crown family members by name in his letters to the editor and fliers. His campaign received notice in newspaper in Chicago, where the Crowns live.
“Was the attention on the Crown’s hypocrisy for not paying a living wage from the Chicago press a bit too glaring?” Mulcahy wrote in his statement. “When the message is indefensible, attack the messenger. Who suspends and then fires an employee protesting the low wages of beginner instructors?”
Disagreement on disagreeing
The Skico and Mulcahy cannot even agree on how long the feud has gone on or the root causes.
The Skico said there have been performance issues “for years.” Mulcahy said he has been targeted since May, when he wrote a letter criticizing the Skico for firing local musician Dan Sheridan for singing a song a company executives didn’t feel was appropriate. Sheridan was offered his job back a short time later and the company said the issue was mishandled internally because of a miscommunication.
Mulcahy claimed he was for a time the highest-producing ski instructor at the Skico’s four ski areas and was the most requested instructor. He was a member of the Diamond Club, a group of the most successful teachers. He started teaching skiing in the 1997-98 season.
Mulcahy contends he was demoted last August after he started complaining about the pay scale for lower level instructors and after he talked with other instructors about the possibility of forming a union to represent them in bargaining with Skico management.
Mulcahy filed two charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the Skico in October. He alleged the company took retaliatory action against him for voicing his concerns about pay for beginning instructors and for approaching other teaches about a union. In his second allegation, he claimed the ski school management structure is potentially unlawful and designed to prevent establishing union representation.
The NLRB is looking into the allegation but hasn’t decided yet if they have merit, a spokeswoman said last month.
Since the 2010-11 ski season started, Mulcahy has fired a constant barrage at the Skico on the pay issue. He formed a group called People for a Living Wage to promote better pay for instructors and he has enlisted friends to write letters to the local newspapers on the topic. It’s difficult to gauge what level of support his effort has generated. About 30 ski instructors attended a meeting called by Mulcahy to discuss the topic, but most were critical of him and his efforts.
Hanle said the issues the Skico has had with Mulcahy over the years have been “performance related.” He wouldn’t elaborate.
Mulcahy was suspended with pay in December after distributing the flier critical of the Crowns. That was converted to a suspension without pay when he failed to meet with the Skico in early January over the investigation.
In his statement, Kaplan defended the Skico’s pay scale and indicated Mulcahy’s campaign is a smokescreen for other issues.
“We pay the best, but we also expect the best and Lee has been told on multiple occasions, over several years, first verbally and later as a final written warning that he needs to make immediate and significant changes in his performance to continue working at Aspen Skiing Company,” Kaplan wrote. “These performance related issues and warnings pre-date Lee’s recent activities. Ultimately, Lee refused to listen to the warnings he had been given – he refused to change his behavior.”
Mulcahy countered that the alleged performance issues are the real smokescreen for the Skico firing an employee who won’t toe the company line. He said he wanted the company to reinstate him as an instructor and agree to look into the pay issues.
Now, he said, he will seek assistance to get his job back.
“It will be up to the National Labor Relations Board to get my job back,” he said. “That’s what they do.”
Hanle said Skico officials have no way of knowing if Mulcahy’s firing will influence the inquiry by the NLRB. The company has been cooperating in full with the agency, he said, and it believes its decision regarding Mulcahy was justified.
“We will fully defend ourselves,” he said.
Aspen Skiing Co. CEO explains firing of ski instructor
Editor’s note: Following is the full statement Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan sent to company employees Monday regarding the firing of ski instructor Lee Mulcahy.
For some time, most of you have been aware of the issues relating to Lee Mulcahy, an employee in our ski school. As of today Mr. Mulcahy has been terminated from his employment with the company. Generally, our practice is to keep employee issues as a private matter between the individual and the Company. Some of you may feel that the Company should never publicly discuss any employee’s status or performance record. In this case, however, the level of public communications by Mr. Mulcahy has created a different situation. In that context, we believe that you should have additional information and understand what has truly taken place.
By way of background, it is our view that Lee Mulcahy’s recent statements to the media about the wages of entry-level ski instructors, is a poorly-disguised attempt to distract attention from his own work-related misconduct. Aspen Skiing Company has repeatedly demonstrated that our ski/snowboard pros are the most highly compensated pros in the business. In fact, our research through National Ski Areas Association and the Mountain States Employers’ Council show that pay rates for all of our front line positions are at least in the upper quartile of compensation levels, if not the absolute highest wages offered in comparison to others. In addition, the following facts are important to consider.
• Being fully aware of those already high levels of pay, we increased pay rates by over 7 percent on average for existing employees in July of 2008, in spite of the recession.
• In 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis and a 7 percent drop in business levels, we did not cut pay, while a high percentage of businesses in our valley, our industry and across the country implemented wage reductions.
• Throughout the recession, we did not implement widespread layoffs.
• We maintained a 401k match in 2009, while many businesses suspended or reduced their match.
• When we did restructure our 401k match in 2010, we established a performance based incentive, resulting in an actual increased match of up to 6 percent.
• We continued to offer health insurance to seasonal employees, one of only a handful in the ski resort business and the only company to continue to offer company subsidized premiums on a year-round basis.
• We held health insurance premiums flat 2 of the last 4 years and only increased employee premiums by less than 10 percent on average over the last 5 years. This compares to average employee premium increases nationwide up to and exceeding 50 percent during the same 5 year period.
I could go on for a long time about all the efforts we have made to ensure we offer the finest workplace experience in the business and in our community, but you, our employees, have spoken by voting us a top 50 Best Places to Work in Outside Magazine for two out of the last three years. We will not rest on this accomplishment, but I am proud of the progress we have made to date.
None of these decisions could have been made without the support of our ownership, the Crown Family and the great work of the employees of Aspen Skiing Company.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mulcahy has chosen to attempt to discredit all of these efforts for the sole purpose of diverting attention away from the true issue, which is the fact that Mr. Mulcahy no longer meets the standards required to be a ski pro with the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen. We pay the best, but we also expect the best and Lee has been told on multiple occasions, over several years, first verbally and later as a final written warning that he needs to make immediate and significant changes in his performance to continue working at Aspen Skiing Company. These performance related issues and warnings pre-date Lee’s recent activities. Ultimately, Lee refused to listen to the warnings he had been given – he refused to change his behavior.
While I am well known as being a very accessible CEO and I fully understand that this community is one where people are passionate about their pursuits, their opinions, and that their perspectives get lots of air time in the local press, it is time for us to move on.
Lee has been terminated today, not for expressing his opinions in the newspapers and to anyone that would listen – that is not the issue. Lee is no longer an employee of Aspen Skiing Company because his past performance was below the standards of care that our guests and community expect of our pros. His recent decision to invade the private space of our guest rooms and guest areas at the Little Nell Hotel, stuffing flyers under guest-room-doors, then, accosting guests in the Little Nell restaurant dining room and then to disrupt lessons and guests in our ticket office – while in uniform – is simply the final straw in a long history of blatant violations of our policies and a failure to exercise good judgment, the most important requirements of any employee. While Mr. Mulcahy has the right to free speech, he does not have the right to interfere with our guest’s privacy, or use working time, or working areas as a vehicle for expressing those views-and while doing so in uniform.
If anyone is concerned that this decision somehow stifles freedom of expression, I can assure you that is not the case. Again, our track record speaks for itself as we have often been criticized publicly by our employees and we have never taken disciplinary action against those individuals. From Base Village to policy decisions such as not allowing children in backpacks on our mountains, we have countless employees still gainfully employed by ASC, who took public positions against our proposals. We do maintain a truly “open door” policy and strongly prefer employees air their differences internally, so that we can come to a constructive resolution. However, Lee was not fired for failing to follow this protocol, he was let go because he does not meet the standards of performance required to be a ski pro and to wear the uniform that represents excellence in service, safety, and professionalism as established by the employees of Aspen Skiing Company.
Thank you all for your hard work, professionalism and spirit. Let’s continue to have a great winter.
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