Living the dream, on overtime

Why the outdoor industry opposes a federal minimum wage.

  • A Wilderness Adventure hike on Shadow Mountain in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

    Courtesy Wilderness Adventures/David J. Swift

Last summer, Jojo Buss worked as a guide in some of the country’s most spectacular places, taking teenagers paddling, hiking and camping. Highlights included kayaking on Yellowstone Lake and whitewater rafting in Teton National Forest. “The way they all bonded, like, blew my mind,” Buss says.

The 22-year-old earned only about $1,800 that summer, despite very long hours under rough conditions. But the experience complemented her college major — youth development and camp management — so this summer, she signed on with the same outfitter, Wilderness Adventures, guiding tours in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. “This is exactly what I want to be doing,” she says. “It’s a selfless job. We’re doing it for the kids. Every kid should have the right and ability to get out in the outdoors and have somebody open their world up.”

Today, when many workers are demanding a higher minimum wage, this seems counterintuitive. Of course, some guides want higher pay and have even filed class-action lawsuits. But Buss’ willingness to re-up despite the low wages helps explain why companies have gotten away with paying people so little for what can be extremely demanding jobs.

Under a new federal rule, following an executive order by the Obama administration, companies with permits to operate on federal land will have to pay employees at least $10.10 an hour, plus overtime. (The changes will phase in gradually, as companies get new permits.) The industry sees the increased wage as an existential threat, given the hours that outdoor work requires, and some congressional Republicans, headed by Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, are seeking an exemption for federal contractors.

Low wages are so accepted in the industry that even college-educated adults like Buss can’t imagine being paid as much as Obama’s rule would require. Her workweek starts when she picks up campers at the airport and ends when she drops them off.  “We’d be getting paid a ridiculous amount of money,” she says. “More than I would feel comfortable accepting.”

Buss’ employer, Mike Cottingham, says he’d have to triple or quadruple wages — something that would either push him out of business after 43 years, or force him to raise fees, putting Wilderness Adventures out of reach of all but the wealthier families. In early June, he went to Washington to testify in favor of Stewart’s bill, though the timing could not have been worse; his season was about to start, and his 80 young staffers were arriving for training in Salt Lake City.

Like many outfitters, Cottingham argues that the new wage requirement clashes with the administration’s oft-stated goal of encouraging people, especially children, to enjoy the outdoors.  “It’s kind of contradictory, to tell you the truth,” he says.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s office declined to comment, but National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson says that though there are challenges getting young people into the parks, “I don’t believe this adds to the list.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., who chaired the June hearing, notes that the administration promotes tourism as a replacement for the extractive industries that have been “strangled by regulation.” “So it’s rather ironic that now the executive branch is working to regulate wilderness tourism out of business,” Lummis said at the hearing.

But Michael Lazzeri, a Labor Department assistant administrator, believes that the added costs would be offset by benefits, including improved employee morale, reduced turnover and increased productivity. “We’re rewarding a hard day’s work,” Lazzeri says.

Some outdoor industry leaders seem relatively unworried; the National Outdoor Leadership School, for example, plans to continue paying salaries to its hundreds of wilderness “instructors,” since bona fide professionals are exempt from the wage requirement. “Some of them probably do and some probably don’t get $10.10 for every hour,” says Linda Lindsey, NOLS’ director of human resources and diversity. “We don’t guide; we teach.” Other employees will be covered by the new rule, including the wilderness horse-packers who transport food to the campers.

Still, many outfitters — especially those who take people hunting, fishing, rafting and climbing in national parks, forests and wildlife refuges — say they’ll have to rethink their business models or shut down altogether.

Pat Tabor owns a company that offers horseback rides in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall National Forest Wilderness. Even though he’s a former accountant, he says, he’s avoided calculating the impact the rule will have on his business. “I’m almost afraid to run the math.”

Like many outfitters, Tabor pays wranglers a salary for what can be round-the-clock work. “The new wage will make it extraordinarily difficult for us to survive,” Tabor says. The most “egregious” part will be paying time-and-a-half for overtime, given that his 40 wranglers work about 72 hours a week, he says. He could hire extra workers to avoid the overtime but has no idea where they’d sleep. Or he could simply reduce his hours of operation. Whatever happens, he’ll probably raise the fee for a two-hour ride from $65 to between $80 and $100 — too pricey, he worries, for many families, and perhaps more than the National Park Service will allow him to charge. “It could be that it doesn’t pencil out, that it doesn’t make practical sense,” to stay in business, he says.

The Forest Service recognizes that the extra paperwork — tracking hours, tips and other compensation, such as housing and food — will be difficult for outfitters, most of whom own small businesses. The agency estimates that 90 percent have revenues of less than $100,000 a year.

Mark Davidson, 29, understands both sides. For seven years, since he graduated from college, he’s worked as a ski instructor in the winter and a backcountry guide and teacher in the summer. He’s rarely made $10 an hour, and usually much less, considering all the hours he put in.

“You do it because you’re passionate about sharing your interest and what the outdoors has taught you,” Davidson says. “It’s extremely fulfilling and it’s very, very fun.” But it’s not a living, so this fall, he’s returning to college to get a degree in biology.

Davidson’s experience reveals a weakness of the New West’s economy, which increasingly relies on recreation. Loggers and miners make good money; some even have pensions. Not so rec workers. “If you can’t live off of it, what’s the point of calling it a career?” Davidson says.

That’s why he supports the new wage.  “I think it’s a great thing. I think it’s needed for the industry.” After all, the new rule offers something the current system doesn’t: It gives people like Davidson a chance to build a future in the field, instead of forcing them to leave work they love.

High Country News Classifieds