By Melinda Munson
I was on the dock overseeing the town’s adorable newsies as they offered the black and white Skaguay Alaskan to smiling tourists disembarking from SMART Bus. Chatting with a tour guide I’d never met before, she asked how I was doing.
“Summers are always rough,” I said. “I can’t wait for it to be over and school to start for my kids.”
“You can’t think like that so early in the season,” she cautioned. “You need to find one thing to be grateful for and hold onto that. Did you get a warm shower this morning?”
I thought it was a strange remark until she told me that so many workers are jammed into her seasonal housing that hot water rapidly runs out, resulting in glacial shower temperatures.
There might be an incessant six-year-old hammering on the bathroom door when I bathe, but I’m guaranteed unlimited hot water with our tankless water heater – as long as no one runs the kitchen sink, the washing machine or the dishwasher.
Since moving to Skagway during COVID, this is my first real tourist season. I’d vaguely heard about the summer housing crush, but now the murmurs are everywhere. Reports of over thirty people living in a single home are not uncommon. One woman doesn’t go to the grocery store because there’s no space in her employee housing fridge or in the kitchen to cook. Rooms that are meant for one person, or maybe one very loving couple, are crammed with four or more strangers.
Many of Skagway’s seasonal employees are living in near third world conditions, for which they pay a sizable rent. They don’t file formal complaints because they want to keep their jobs.
We’re still chasing the gold that started this town. Things are a little unsanitary, a little unsafe, but unlike for miners of the past, the money actually is coming in, and some employees choose not to limit their workers to available adequate housing.
A friend described it best as a lack of dignity for our workforce. Whether it’s non potable water or a shack that was described to a new employee as a cabin, it’s appalling. We try to give tourists a first class experience while barely meeting the needs of Skagway’s backbone.
I don’t know if the answer to better housing is water and power over the bridge, a new RV park, or heaven forbid, a cap on cruise visitors. I just know that we can’t continue to subject our seasonal workers to substandard conditions. Being young and adventurous shouldn’t be a trade off for dignity.