If Fitpacking Owner Steve Silberberg paid his guides a set rate for every hour they spent in the backcountry while leading multi-day trips through national parks and forests, he wouldn't have enough money leftover to pay for anything else.
President Donald Trump on May 25 overturned an Obama-era order requiring Silberberg and other private guide companies that operate on federal lands and rivers to pay employees $10.10 per hour. But Silberberg said he won't lower his guides' daily wages.
"If you break down what I pay guides into eight-hour days, we’re already paying more than the minimum," he said.
The executive order recently signed by Trump exempts those private businesses from the blanket minimum wage. It does not exempt lodging, food services, or other businesses operating in national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and other public lands.
“The order will have a positive effect on rural economies and American families, allowing guides and outfitters to bring tourists out on multi-day hiking, fishing, hunting, and camping expeditions, without enduring costly burdens,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. “The outdoor recreation sector is a multi-billion dollar economic engine, and the more people able to enjoy our public lands, the better.”
Impact to guides and outfitters
The rollback comes at the request of many outfitters and guide services, who said that hourly wage systems are infeasible because guides would have to log hours and overtime—a burdensome task on employees who sign up to essentially work on call.
For one employee, a seven-day trip could cost the employer more than $1,000, not counting overtime. Instead, many outfitter pay employees a flat daily rate between $70 and $200 for round-the-clock work, not including tips.
Four guides—fishing, climbing, and canyoneering—interviewed by SNEWS said they are not paid hourly and had not heard of the minimum wage requirement. One said he makes quite a bit more than $10 per hour as a trout guide.
Even so, the Sierra Club Colorado Chapter opposed the order.
"Regardless of what work it is, people should be able to make a living wage," said spokeswoman Hillary Larson."Guides and folks who work outside shouldn’t be excluded from that."
Many outfitters were not impacted by Obama's order because either they didn't need to renew federal permits—which expire every few years up to 10 years, depending on the type—or because in 2016, Congress prohibited implementation of the order.
If Trump hadn't exempted outfitters and guides, those business would have been affected down the road.
"We're unaffected by the order anyway, since I have no desire to lower wages just because it may now be legal," Silberberg said. "I would like to pay my guides more than I do. But I do have to pay the bills."
Outfitters also argued that if they raised wages, they would need to raise trip prices, and only customers with deep pockets would be able to afford their trips—counterintuitive to getting people of all backgrounds outdoors. And many outfitters thought they might be put out of business by the high overhead.
“Our sincere appreciation to President Trump and Secretary Zinke for this job-saving action,” said David Brown, vice president of America Outdoors Association, a national association of outfitters and guides. “Because we are in the backcountry 24/7 and on duty much or all of that time, [Obama's order] was ill-conceived for businesses who cannot bring on a second or third shift to control overtime.”
Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and chairman of the Professional Outfitters and Guides of America, also approved of the order.
"Attending to the health safety and welfare of clients on an outfitted trip begins at the trailhead and ends days later when everyone has safely returned; compliance with time accounting measures required by [Obama's order] was impossible in this work environment,” Minard said in an Interior news release.
Many guides and outfitters get into the business to follow their passions, not to get rich. And those interviewed said that without a minimum wage, they already make a living wage.