Highs and lows of seasonal work at Lake Tahoe
May 18, 2018
TRUCKEE, Calif. — Finding steady work in a town with jobs dependent on the changing seasons is a tough task all seasonal workers must face.
Now that most ski resorts, and primary employers during the winter, have begun downsizing their staff for summer activities, many of their employees must now scramble for other financial support.
"We generally don't have a lot of money when we do the work we do," said Alex Caron, who works as a logistics manager at Tahoe City Kayak during the summer and a ski instructor over the winter season.
Caron said he currently shares a small studio with a roommate, barely big enough for the two of them.
"You deal with what you have to deal with in order to do the things you love," he said.
Previously a department manager at REI in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Caron decided to quit his job and move to Tahoe last year.
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"I took a huge pay cut to come out here," he said, "but I wanted to make a change."
The combination of low wages and high cost of living in the Tahoe area creates a unique challenge for seasonal workers. For most, financial stability isn't a luxury supported by an unconventional career that requires a new job hunt every five months.
Came for the winters
According to an April 2018 report by the Tahoe Prosperity Center, the average annual income per capita in the Tahoe Basin is $30,516. A 2016 regional housing study done by the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation reported that 76 percent of residents are overpaying for housing, meaning more than 30 percent of their income goes towards their housing costs.
Despite the low pay and costly housing, Lake Tahoe draws many workers like Caron with its world class skiing and seemingly endless opportunities for adventure during the summer.
Sam McGuinness, a ski school program manager at Northstar California, had never planned on making a career out of seasonal work but said he "wouldn't change a thing." Starting as a lift operator at Turoa Ski Area in New Zealand 11 years ago, he worked back-to-back winters moving between his home country of New Zealand to Europe and Canada for five years.
While the work provided unlimited access to the snow it was always difficult to make ends meet.
"I saw a lot of people working two jobs and working really hard," he said. "It was easy to get into perpetual debt, always trying to catch up on your bills. If I wanted to stay afloat I had to be thinking ahead."
Before making any decisions about his future McGuinness said he always thinks about what choices are permanent and what aspects of his life are negotiable.
"For me, skiing is not negotiable. I have to be able to do that every winter," he said. "You have to think about where you want to be in the next five years and what you want out of life and that will give you a compass."
To increase his hourly wage on the mountain, he began to focus on professional development, obtaining a variety of ski instructor certifications.
Eventually he moved with his wife, a Northern California native, to Roseville for six months before relocating to Lake Tahoe and working as a ski instructor at Northstar at the start of the 2013 season.
Now a manger with Vail Resorts, McGuinness said has been able to take advantage of the benefits and professional opportunities provided to him, including full-time work over the summer. Over the past two summers he has secured a job as a ropes course manager and then a summer activities manager at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Stayed for the summers?
"Winter employees have a great opportunity to stay on at the golf course, bike park, in lift operations or guiding," said Stephanie Meyers, Northstar communications specialist.
Meyers said that while some employees choose to head to countries south of the equator for an endless winter, like McGuinness had done for half a decade, "the summer tends to keep people here."
"We have people that come to visit and say 'maybe I want to be a ski instructor' then they come and they move into our community and they fall in love," said Meyers.
Staying for the summer, however, means working another low wage job such as a food server, a river guide, camp counselor, retailer or other jobs that opens up as the weather gets warmer.
For Alex Caron, the opportunity to live and play in Lake Tahoe is enough to keep him here.
"It's about making small sacrifices and constantly reminding yourself that there's a bigger picture," he said. "It's not always about the money."