Less than a week after President Joe Biden’s announcement requiring employers with more than 100 workers mandate either vaccinations or weekly COVID-19 testing, Aspen Skiing Co. made public its policy for the 2021-22 winter season that staff will be required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15.
“Exemptions will only be granted for medical reasons pursuant to the Americans with Disability Act and religious reasons pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act,” the SkiCo announcement notes.
The timing with the federal declaration was purely coincidental, SkiCo Vice President of Communications Jeff Hanle said Tuesday.
“We couldn't have pulled it together that quickly. It was something we were working on and discussing and debating for awhile now, and the timing is coincidental with the announcement out of Washington,” he said. “We already picked a date to disclose this and notify our employees and to move forward with it, and then the Biden announcement came.”
To Hanle’s knowledge, Aspen is the first ski resort to make such an official requirement of employees, though he acknowledged “I have not heard of any others — that doesn’t mean there aren’t others.”
Internally, SkiCo officials have been working for months to communicate with existing and incoming staff about the requirements. So far, the reception has been mostly positive, Hanle said.
“We had started having those conversations with people who are reaching out to us for an appointment and having very little push back,” he said. While there has been some objection — to which those people are essentially told, “there are plenty of opportunities for you to work in the ski world this year” but not in Aspen, he continued — most people who have not yet been vaccinated have simply not gotten around to it but weren’t opposed. And in the case of some international employees coming to work through a J1 visa, the announcement has come with some relief: people who don’t have access to the vaccine in their home country will now be able to receive one through SkiCo as their employer.
“We have J1 workers coming again this year. The agencies we work with have all been notified that we will be requiring vaccines, and that has gone over well,” Hanle said. “Right now, this hasn’t appeared to be a stumbling block to this point.”
In fact, it’s not the vaccine requirement that proves to be a sticking point for prospective employees — it’s housing. Hanle said the company has seen a number of employment offers turned down because the barrier to entry to the Roaring Fork Valley is simply too high.
“We’ve had, the last couple of years, more applicants than we’ve ever had, and more acceptance of job offers only for people to pull the plug because they can’t find housing. The Hub will be a great benefit for that — 20% increase in the number of beds we’ve had, and that will be helpful,” he said of the new SkiCo Willits employee housing project. “It has that trickle-down effect because if we take our employees out of the search for housing, that will allow others to find housing. It is certainly not the only solution to this, but it’s going to help.”
As for when the federal policy will go into effect, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said during a Pitkin County Board of Commissioners work session Tuesday that details are forthcoming. But in the meantime, the county has implemented an incentive program to encourage vaccination.
“That [online] portal went live just yesterday. We have already had 106 employees complete that, so I think we’re going to get a good response to that,” he said. “The deadline for that is Nov. 5, so we’ve got a lot of time still.”
As for the Biden administration’s federal requirement, Peacock and Hanle both said little clarity has been offered, which was one of the reasons SkiCo opted to go forth with its initial schedule to announce its own requirements, Hanle said. Whatever does come down the pipe will likely be through the Office of Clinical Evidence and Analysis, and will likely allow 50-90 days for execution.
As COVID-19 continues to play a major role in another winter season’s planning, Hanle said nothing is off the table in terms of what may be necessary in order to remain open — including potentially requiring vaccinations or proof of a negative COVID-19 test from hospitality guests.
“The discussions we are having are internal: they’re with our ownership group, they’re within the industry to see what other people are thinking, what are the best practices,” he said. “So everything’s on the table, but nothing has been decided yet. We’re not at any point of making any decisions, both internally and with our ownership and within the industry. I can’t have a crystal ball to say where we’re going to land. But there’s certainly discussions around every aspect of our business to say how do we do what’s best for our community, our employees — and our business, frankly.”