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Opinion: Tips hit skids for ski area workers

Growing up in Burlington, I can remember the Salvation Army bell being rung on Church Street during the Christmas shopping season. The bell ringer stood next to a red kettle hanging from a tripod. Early in the shopping season you could hear the clang of coins as they fell into the nearly empty bucket.
In the closing days of shopping before Christmas the coins could no longer be heard. There were more shoppers and the mood was more generous as shoppers felt the relief of having completed their mission. In the days before credit cards pockets and pocketbooks were emptied of their change and their bills as relief turned to magnanimity. The bucket was so full there was no sound.
In the first year of non full-time work (I am not comfortable with “retired”) I found myself testing my abilities on the easy slopes of a few ski areas in Vermont. One resort I frequented reminded me of the old clang on the kettle. There were a number of food venues and next to each cash register were metal boxes affixed to the counter. They had a slot in the top for tips and were accompanied by the message “thank you.” A few times I dropped change into the slot. The sound of the dropping coins could not have seemed more cavernous. My coins were not joining any others in the container. Certainly not any bills that would muffle the noise.
The prices one paid at the concessions were not quite what is expected when at an airport or major league sporting event but they weren’t inexpensive. Often as not, if families did make it to ski areas this past winter they packed a lunch themselves. I never got the impression that anyone would even think about taking those tip boxes. Even if they weren’t bolted to the counter the effort would not be worth it. They seemed to be an empty reminder of the winter past that wasn’t.
So what of the workers that had worked previous winters and knew tips were something nice to help pay the bills, boost morale or give one reason to take pride in their work in the hospitality industry. Empty tip boxes may have meant some were just glad they weren’t furloughed for the whole season. They might also mean a wait for the new set of radials that is needed for their car. It may mean that instead of new cleats for spring sports for the kids there will simply be thinner socks. What kind of stress and rancor has there been for hard workers who had always rewarded themselves with a 12-pack on weekends but now that reward had become a source of contention?
The Middlebury Snow Bowl ended its season on Sunday along with a few other Vermont ski areas. They have three lifts on their mountain in Hancock but it took an awful long time to open even one and for most of the season they had only two open. The third lift was barely open at all and it is no secret that if there weren’t snowmaking at this and other ski areas maybe there would have been no season at all. Pity the poor ski equipment salespeople who made their rounds hoping someone would need to restock their gear and clothing. The ripples of the coins not falling in the tip box are felt further and further out in our state’s economy.
Season ticketholders all over the state, and beyond, are wondering why they put all that money up front. Will they think twice before doing it again? How big an aberration was this winter past? As a novice skier I watched the signs on the lift lines more closely than experienced skiers. But the final sign in this winter seems to be the most ironic: Keep tips up.
John Mahoney
Burlington

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