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WHITEFISH- The Big Mountain ski resort is considering random drug testing for its hundreds of employees, a move that has raised hackles among many in the mostly young, mobile, seasonal work force.

"It's the new, uptight corporate attitude coming home to Montana," said one longtime manager at the resort. "They say it's about safety, but they can't point to even one safety problem, not one drug- or alcohol-related accident."

What they can point to, however, is a marijuana drug bust involving one of the resort's chairlift operators a couple weeks back. The employee, who was being fired for issues not related to drugs, was escorted to his locker, which he was to clear out prior to leaving.

When the locker was opened, his Big Mountain escort spotted a bag of pot.

"That's what got this thing going," said another manager. "That was the fire under all this."

Many of Big Mountain's employees still don't know about the drug testing proposal, as management has yet to unveil the final plan. And those in middle management, who attended a meeting Tuesday to hear about the plan, were ordered not to talk to the media about the proposal. Resort bosses did not return calls.

Instead, all calls were referred to the office of a spokesman who won't be in for several days.

Some in middle management, however, chose to contact the media directly, asking that their names be withheld.

"Five years ago, no one up here would have been scared to voice an opinion," said one employee. "Now, no one's going to say one word on the record. The style of management has become management by fear. Step out of line, state an opinion, and you're gone."

"It's getting pretty old pretty fast, working up there these days," another manager said. "You can bet nobody walks around town proud of working up there anymore."

The proposal unveiled at Tuesday's meeting promises to bring what upper-management termed a "culture change" to he resort.

Upper management told attendants at Tuesday's meeting that Big Mountain is not in the top half of the industry when it comes to safety. When pressed, however, they did not offer any examples of safety problems that were tracked back to drug or alcohol abuse.

Nevertheless, they proposed a plan that would test all employees - from lift operators to ski instructors to the CEO - for drugs on a random schedule.

They provided two handouts: One was a fact sheet answering questions about the testing process; the second was a legal sheet that employees could sign, acknowledging the company's right to do the testing.

The plan was that, as of April 1, the company would submit all employees' names to Anderson Pharmaceutical for testing. The drug testing company would then pick names, at random, and begin the tests. Over a one-year cycle, about 225 Big Mountain employees would be tested, according to managers who attended the meeting.

Only one manager in attendance spoke in favor of the plan. Others, some apparently not opposed to testing itself, questioned whether it was sound policy to begin the testing mid-season, as it might disrupt solid departments.

The Big Mountain is known for its world-class team of ski instructors, for instance. Turnover is low, and the instructors are mostly long-timers with lots of experience. Add drug testing partway through the season, some managers warned, and you'll lose a healthy portion of that team.

Managers successfully appealed to corporate heads to delay enacting the program, and received a 30-day reprieve during which they are to submit their own ideas. That extra month means the plan, if implemented, would not take effect until after the lifts close April 11. In the meantime, managers aim to craft their own policy, which does not include random tests.

Empowering managers to solve drug-related problems, in fact, has proven successful elsewhere in the ski industry.

Most notably, the Vail Resorts company dropped its drug testing program in 2000, "because we just felt that it didn't set the right tone or culture of trust," said Kelly Ladyga. Ladyga is spokesperson for Vail Resorts, which operates Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone ski resorts in Colorado.

When Vail dumped testing, she said, the company instead began training managers to look for signs of drug and alcohol abuse.

"Since we've done that," Ladyga said, "we've seen no significant increase in workplace safety-related issues."

What has increased, however, is the number of qualified people applying for jobs at Vail Resorts; previously, the company had struggled to find enough workers. The drug testing requirement, Vail management decided, was scaring off much-needed employees.

"It's absolutely working well," Ladyga said of the new no-test policy.

Vail's experience is in line with several national studies, which hint that productivity actually declines with the implementation of random drug testing. The tests, researchers have said, can result in low morale, an air of accusation and mistrust among employees.

"I do my job," said one Big Mountain manager. "My employees do their jobs. We are clean, and we do good work. There's no safety issue here, and so if it comes to it, I'll tell them where they can put their little cup."

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Not all managers, however, are so strongly opposed to the tests.

"People bring their kids up here," said another manager. "They want to know it's a safe environment. The bottom line is, it's a business, and the business is responsible for guest safety. I think what I do on my own time is my own business, but we do need to make sure everyone is sober."

Whitefish Chief of Police Bill Dial couldn't agree more.

"Do you want some guy stoned out of his mind crashing a $300,000 groomer machine?" he asked.

But the fact is, other managers said, that no significant accidents have occurred. People want a safe environment, and a safe environment is what they have.

Even Dial, who believes the proposal for random drug testing is "a wonderful thing," admits he knows of no drug-related safety problems on the mountain.

"We haven't seen those kinds of problems," he said, "but anytime you have a large group of young people working at a ski area without a lot of supervision, you have the potential."

Already, he said, officers with the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force drop by the resort on occasion, looking for pot smokers.

"Usually, they don't get much," Dial admits. "Every once in a while, they'll make a marijuana arrest or something."

Which is exactly what has the employees so upset. If the drug-related safety record is good, if the cops can't find anyone to bust, if other resorts are ditching the tests in the struggle to find staff, then why initiate testing?

"Because it's against the law," Dial said.

"Because it has been a tolerated culture," added another Big Mountain manager, "and it's not going to be tolerated anymore."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at mjamison@missoulian.com

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