This past January, twenty-seven year old Ryan Hiller died when a tree fell on his tent cabin during a storm at Yosemite National Park. Tent cabins are structures with concrete flooring and walls, canvas roofs, beds, a dresser, but no cooking or toilet facilities. They are meant for overnight visitors who don’t want to pitch tents or stay in an expensive Yosemite lodge. Ryan wasn’t camping, however. He was a seasonal employee of the Delaware North Corporation, which manages the concessions at Yosemite. Tent cabins were the company housing the corporation provided, and for which Ryan had to pay rent.
Millions of people visit our national parks every year. They stay in hotels, cabins, and campgrounds, eat in the restaurants, and go on various excursions. You might be one of these persons. Did you ever wonder about the workers who checked you into your room, served your meals, or drove your tour bus? How much did they get paid? What were their working conditions? Where did these men and women live?
The federal government contracts national park concessions to private corporations. Three prominent concessionaires are Xanterra, owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz; the Delaware North Corporation; and Aramark, the global food and services provider. Park concessionaires collectively now have gross annual revenues of more than one billion dollars!
These businesses build their profits on the backs of some 25,000 workers, most of them hired seasonally. They promote themselves as stewards of the parks, providing ideal jobs for college students, senior citizens, and people who might enjoy living in a beautiful environment. The reality is something different. Many employees are, in effect, migrant workers, who move from park to park during the year and who depend economically upon these jobs. There is nothing ideal about this employment. Hours fluctuate wildly. At the beginning of a season, there are usually too many workers and hours are insufficient; as the season wears on, people leave and hours are over-long. The work is extremely stressful. Tourists crowd the national parks on vacations, and they can be rude and demanding of the staff. A guest at Yellowstone actually threatened to kill a server when he thought she had not treated him properly. Supervisors often run roughshod over their underlings, demeaning them in front of coworkers and guests and making unreasonable demands such as that you can’t get a drink of water during your shift. Unlike most jobs, workers are in isolated areas and often have no transportation, so if they don’t like the conditions and quit (or are fired, as often happens), they must leave the park immediately, losing not just their jobs but their homes and food supply.
One particularly egregious employer practice is the aggressive recruitment of young people from foreign countries, sometimes under the false premise that they will learn national park management and earn enough money to travel in the United States. Instead, these guest workers find themselves cleaning hotel rooms or laboring in hot kitchens, with little time available to see the parks in which they work and no money for travel.
Park concession employees earn extraordinarily low wages, and these become still lower after various deductions are made. Both domestic and foreign workers must pay all their travel expenses. For those who depend on incomes from park jobs, these costs mount because they must vacate housing at the end of the season, find some place to stay for a month or two, and then return to serve the next season of tourists. For example, a cook might work at the Bryce National Park Lodge from April to November, be unemployed for a month or two, and then go to the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley National Park. Employees also must pay partial room and board, as well as a health insurance premium. If you get stuck with limited hours during a pay period, it is possible that your wages will be negative after deductions.
Undesirable eating and living arrangements compound low wages and poor working conditions. Poor quality and unhealthful food characterize the fare in the employee dining rooms. Guests receive much better food than workers; they get full-strength orange juice and fresh eggs, while employees get watered-down juice and liquid eggs. We worked during the spring and summer of 2001 at Yellowstone National Park for Xanterra (formerly Amfac). We were appalled when we ate our first meal and discovered that the servers slopped our food onto compartmented plastic trays, just like in prisons.
Living accommodations are deplorable. We lived in a ten by ten room in Teal Hall, an ancient wooden building that looked like a long storage shed. We were fortunate to arrive for our job training earlier than most of our fellow workers, so we were able to scavenge the unoccupied rooms for the best of the ratty furniture and room amenities in them. The tiny hot water heater in our room was good for one shower. We had meager laundry facilities, but at least they were free; in other parks, workers must pay to wash and dry their clothing.
But bad as Teal Hall was, and still is, it is not the worst employee housing we have seen. Hovels, shacks, tents (in Alaska), there doesn’t seem to be a lower limit to the quality of employee housing. Usually, unrelated adults must share spaces too small for either privacy or neatness. These quarters are what workers go back to after a long hard day of labor at less than minimum wage (once travel, room, and board costs are taken into account). Imagine working as a hotel desk clerk—the job I had—standing on your feet for eight hours, dealing all day long with frazzled and irate tourists, missing a meal, and then walking home to your tent. If it is payday, you might delay your misery by detouring after work to the employee pub. At Yellowstone, we were encouraged to give our wages back to Xanterra at the pub, which was one of the company’s most lucrative profit centers.
Recently, the National Park Service approved a plan to allow Xanterra to take some employee housing at the Old Faithful area of Yellowstone and convert it into cabins for guests. This housing will undergo major renovations to be suitable for the tourists:
* The interior of the cabin units will be rehabilitated: new floor coverings, wall coverings, electrical systems, bathroom fixtures, and gas heaters.
* A number of the cabins would be made accessible.
* Pathways to the cabin area will be made safer and more accessible. Many of the asphalt walkways within the cabin area are old and deteriorating with numerous rough spots, uneven surfaces, raveling edges, and missing pavement. These walkways would be replaced or repaired as part of this project.
Xanterra wasn’t concerned with these cabins when the workers lived in them. Who cares if they had safe and accessible pathways and livable interiors? They were only means of production and not paying customers. The corporation is going to build a dormitory for employees, but away from where the tourists stay. Small rooms for two or three people and cheap construction would be my guess.
Stephen T. Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service (1917-1930), said, “Scenery is a hollow enjoyment to the tourist who sets out in the morning after an indigestible breakfast and a fitful night’s sleep on an impossible bed.” These words provided the rationalization for the growing commercialization of the national parks he oversaw. Those who came to the parks then were relatively well-off, and the lodges and concessions were developed with them in mind. Poorly paid workers served them, from the black porters on the trains that delivered tourists to Glacier National Park to the Harvey Girls at the Grand Canyon.
Today, the average tourists are not among the economic elite, but they must have incomes high enough to shell out the considerable sums of money necessary for transportation, lodging, food, and concessions (the off-season rate for a standard king bed room at Yosemite’s Ahwanhee Hotel is a whopping $532.87). What has changed little since Mather’s day is that low-wage labor still does the work, usually after sleeping on “an impossible bed” and eating an “indigestible breakfast.” Rich corporations, poor workers. Sound familiar?