Ski industry to take health care blow? |

Ski industry to take health care blow?

Reid Armstrong
Sky-Hi News
and Lauren Glendenning
Vail Daily News

WINTER PARK – New federal health care reform could cost ski resorts a lot of money in 2014, the year a provision goes into effect that fines employers $2,000 for every employee that works more than 120 days per year and isn’t offered health care coverage.

It will take some time before the ski industry realizes what’s at stake in the recently passed health care reform bill, said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, a marketing and public policy arm for 22 of the state’s ski resorts.

“We’re still deciphering the bill itself and what its possible effects are to our members,” Rudolph said.

Ski areas often employ seasonal, part-time workers who, under the new law, would qualify for employer heath care coverage even though the employees are not considered full-time employees.

Winter Park Resort hires 1,300 seasonal employees each year; some 800 of those are considered full-time seasonal (they work about 160 days per year) and could potentially fall under the umbrella of the new legislation.

“We’re all right now trying to understand what the bill says,” said Winter Park Resort CEO Gary DeFrange. “I don’t understand it all the way through. The one thing we want focus on is what defines a seasonal worker: How many days do you have to work? How much do you have to work during those days?”

The National Ski Areas Association has hired consultants to help the association figure out long-term effects and how to go about making changes either with the law itself or within each ski company’s structuring.

“However this thing finally ends up – we want to make sure that what is considered seasonal in the legislation is appropriate to our industry,” DeFrange said.

DeFrange stressed the value of seasonal employees, not only to the resort but to the community as a whole.

“As a community, we have to recognize that these people are not only truly a part of this community, they are part of the economic engine that drives this community.”

First year seasonal employees are attracted to the job by the ski privileges and discounts, DeFrange said. Many are young people taking a year off between high school and college or in their first years post-grad, DeFrange said. A surprising number of retirees also join the seasonal team as a second career, he added.

“They want to work for a ski area, that’s why they’re here,” he said. “(Seasonal employment) gets them here, lets them enjoy the sport and gives them a free season pass. They get tickets to other places in the state and the ability to enjoy the resort for less cost.”

While the resort currently does not provide health care benefits to first- and second-year seasonal employees, the company places a strong focus on safety, wellness and preventative care, DeFrange said. Every employee receives a wellness newsletter and attends seminars on health and safety. The company also provides its employees with access to annual health fairs onsite or in the community.

Full-time seasonal employees in their third year are given the option of signing onto the company’s health insurance plan.

“By an employee’s third year, they are thinking about this more as a career choice,” DeFrange said. “They are more dedicated to it. That’s why we step it up and get them into the (health insurance) program at that point.”

Those who stay become entrenched in the community. Former seasonal workers are now the community’s business owners, town council members, homeowners and work professionals, DeFrange said.

Those who take off at the end of the season leave with a pocketful of training in customer service, risk management and skills that apply to jobs in almost every sector, he said, noting it’s a win-win situation for the resort and its seasonal employees.

“Intrawest is monitoring the new health care legislation to determine the requirements for a business of our size. Once these requirements are clearly defined we will take the necessary steps to ensure all of our resorts in the United States are in compliance when the new health care laws take effect,” is the official statement from the parent company.

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said it’s too early to know exactly how big the impacts of the health legislation could be on the industry, he said.

“There are a number of issues we need to understand better,” Berry said. “The rule-making process will take another 18-20 months, where details will be interpreted – we’ll be watching very closely.”

The National Ski Areas Association also plans to host regular educational seminars for members to keep everyone up to speed on what health care reform means to the industry, Berry said.

The first such meeting is scheduled this May at the association’s annual convention and trade show. “We’ll try to make the case that just because (workers) are seasonal and part-time, that there are better ways to go about (health care reform) than a statutory fine,” Berry said.

“This is four years out, and that four years is going to go quickly,” DeFrange said.

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