Some residents pay a very high price
Ed. note and content warning: This article contains mention of racial and sexual abuse, as well as descriptions of injury. While the people quoted in this article are anonymous to protect their safety and confidentiality, they are known to the editor.
Over three years writing for the Mammoth Times and a lifetime living in the area, I have felt that coverage addressing the experiences of service industry employees in the Eastern Sierra has been missing from local media.
After beginning to report on this story idea this past summer, it quickly became clear that what employees had to share would not fit in a traditional article using the Times’ standards for anonymity and fact-checking. All of the employees interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous in name, occupation, and the name of the business they work for, due to fear of retaliation from their employers. Even a phone call or visit to one of these businesses to interview the owners, fact-check, or ask to see specific records could jeopardize the employees who, if identified, could lose their jobs, housing, or other forms of livelihood. You will notice that many pieces of information in this article are described broadly, due to the fact that specific stories could also lead to the identification of employees. And so, I’ve come to realize that the fact that an article like this can’t be published in the news section of the paper shows some of the deep running problems in the labor system in this region. In ways such as this, exploitation and the modes of control used by businesses here in Mono County are swept under the rug, not often officially recorded, and, it seems, almost never publicly reported. But as the employees who speak in this article said, the exploitation does not go unrecorded. Through means very different than what makes up a traditional news article, means such as word of mouth, stories passed between employees, or by the kinds of wordless understandings that develop between people who work together, there is a lot said and understood about what goes on behind the doors of the local service industry businesses that keep this county’s ecotourism economy running. I personally believe that sources like this (Ed. note: all the anonymous sources in this article have been verified by the editor) should be considered more valid in journalism, but in this moment, I just think it’s time that local media uses its place to address this topic in one form or another. While this article definitely doesn’t do so completely, hopefully it’s a step in the right direction.
The goal of the article is also somewhat different from a classic opinion piece: instead of trying to write my singular opinion or speak for others, the idea is to use the newspaper as a platform to share testimony from local employees who have experienced injustice in the workplace. This article comes from the stories of over fifteen employees referencing more than ten different service industry employers in Mono County including Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, Lee Vining, and Bridgeport. About 90 percent of these employees identify as Latinx or another minority group. Their ages range from eighteen to sixty. Some had been working in their service industry job for no more than a year, others for more than half their life.
We hope that you will read with attention to the patterns in the stories that employees shared. While the most horrifying examples of abuse might capture your attention most strongly, the entire range of accounts in this article are related because they point to deeply-running issues of inequity that prop up this county’s economic system. These issues grow from the deep racial and economic divides produced by a tourism-based economy, where many people work to feed, entertain, lodge, or help tourists, and a select few profit off of the vehicle for that food, entertainment, lodging, or help. Some stories about workplace mistreatment in this article are likely some of the worst that people experience here in Mono County, and do not represent the experience of all employees. But these businesses are not outliers or “bad apples,” instead, they point to the fundamental issue that shapes every place of work here in Mono County. As the employees interviewed for this article conveyed, under our current economy and system of labor --- and especially in the way this system intersects with race, employees are often not seen or treated as human.
I would also like to note here that this article itself was also written with a number of other people, in addition to the article sources, who also wish to remain anonymous due to concerns for safety. But the brainstorming, reporting and interviews, framing, translations, and more come from a group of people working together, and we hope you will listen with care.
“Through this, they take advantage:" Across workplaces in Mono County, employees spoke about patterns they have picked up on, means that different bosses find to extract the labor they need to run their business without providing compensation or treatment that employees see as fair.
These patterns aren’t blanket statements for every business in the area, employees said, but more like a series of “red flags” that appear in many businesses in this area, enabled by the unique conditions of working in a place that has extreme disparities between the very rich and the poor, and that is often highly racially segregated in housing, job opportunities, and more.
One anonymous employee in the county spoke on these trends. They said that in a county which gets most of its income from tourism — restaurants, hotels, ski resorts, outdoor services, and other shops — service industry employees run the town. Yet, business owners can and do find ways to get that labor through cheap methods. This means leveraging inequity to take advantage of employees. In many cases, this happens along racial and class lines: the majority of service industry employees in the county are people of color, predominantly Latino, and many people working in these jobs are in need of the income to pay rent and provide for their families.
Several employees spoke on their experiences in other service industry jobs in the area where they did not feel disrespected and taken advantage of and said they did have some positive experiences.
Much of this difference came from the way that managers spoke to and interacted with their employees, treating them with respect, they said. But most employees said that their workplace is a place they feel trapped to stay in because of the need to take care of themselves and their families.
“They try to exploit us,” said one anonymous employee, referred to here as ‘A.’ A. said that they have contemplated leaving their service industry job for many years now, due to low pay and an unsafe work environment, but their bosses are also landlords and own the housing that they — and the majority of employees in the workplace — live in. “The truth is that I've had many years where I said, I'm not going to go back, I'm not going to go back, because they treat me so badly... but we have necessity,” they said. “We want to eat, and we endure because of the housing. They treat us how they treat us because they have the housing… Because we want to eat, they take advantage of us.”
The reason this area lacks enough affordable housing, A. said, is “because through this, the bosses can abuse the worker.” With control over their employees’ housing, bosses then also control multiple other key factors in their employees’ lives.
“Many people are tied to [the business] because of the housing, and they don’t have anywhere to go,” another local employee said. “The bosses know that they can take advantage and treat people badly, because where are they going to go?”
E., another employee from the area, also brought up housing as one way that employers take advantage of their employees. “I feel like a lot of these problems stem from, or are heavily influenced by, the employee housing thing,” they said. Since there is such a shortage of housing, “workers would not otherwise be able to live here, and since their employment is in control of their housing, that gives the employment a lot of room to take advantage of the workers,” E. said.
In some cases, bosses who double as landlords will only allow people to live in their housing on the condition that those people work a certain number of hours at their business each week,” A. said. “They are offering housing for those who are looking, but only if you work for them. It’s the condition, like ‘Yes, you can rent, but you have to work for me,”’ they said.
Another Mono County service industry employee, D., said the combination of the need to make money and the lack of other job options across the county has kept them in a workplace where they feel taken advantage of. “The pay you get and the job you’re asked to do, most people, if [they] saw it, would say no. But they don’t tell you what you’re going to do beforehand, they kind of just give you a vague idea of what your job is going to be,” they said. D. described having to wait tables, bus tables, wash dishes, help prep food, train new employees, answer phone calls, and help out in other departments all during the same shift, when they originally were only asked to be a server.
Like A., D. has also thought about quitting their job due to these high stress levels and feeling misled, but “I need the hours,” they said. “There’s not that much work being offered around. So, we put up with it, as much as we don’t want to.” Both said that the business seems to look for this quality of “putting up with it” when hiring new people. “I feel like they look at qualified employees, and then they’re like, ‘No, it’s okay, we don’t need any more help.’ And then it’s like, ‘Yes we do.’ And then they hire people who look like they would accept anything that comes their way…. I was like ‘Yeah, I need a job, I’ll take whatever I can get.’”
Another anonymous employee described something similar, i.e. that their workplace hires “really desperate people.” That desperation is often created by outside factors, or the workplace creates it themselves, creating this “vulnerable demographic of people who are really desperate… and we get stuck.”
D. said they think that in the long run, hiring like this saves the business money, and so that “all these places abuse that power that they have, to pay people minimum wage and then make them run their entire business, so they can just sit back and rake in the cash… they can still make so much money because there’s not a lot of places here for people to go.”
One employee also reflected on the specific hiring practices that one of their past places of employment had used to keep employees working while clearly exploiting their labor. “They’re very specific on who they hire,” they said. “They hire young girls. It’s always high school girls, because high school girls are easier to, I feel like, control.”
This employee recounted feeling emotionally manipulated to remain in their workplace. “The way they talk to you there, they make you feel like they’re your friend, but then they’ll make comments like ‘if you quit, you’re not going to get paid the same anywhere else. We treat you so good here.’ It’s like a relationship, they smother you with love, and then they’ll treat you like shit,” they said. This employee’s place of work was known as a popular place to go, and they reflected that the bosses used that fact to keep employees around. “It’s like ‘there’s no other restaurant that’s popular like here, you make more tips here, you make more money here, and this is the best restaurant ever.’ Those things… if they’re telling you constantly, they get you,” they said.
Verbal, sexual, and mental abuse in the workplace
Emotionally and financially manipulative strategies to keep employees working are only needed, employees said, because working conditions are emotionally and physically damaging enough to make employees want to leave in the first place.
“They don’t treat us like what we are, people,” said one employee, echoing a theme raised by many who spoke about what they saw as abuse that is rooted in a deep and fundamental lack of respect from their bosses and managers. “They get to earn a lot of money thanks to us, to our work that we give them to earn money. But this, they don’t see. They don’t see it. There are a lot of bad things for the employees over there,” they said.
One employee said their overall workplace environment is one of fear. “We're always going to work with the fear of ‘'What's going to happen today?” We are always scared because for every little thing, (the bosses) get angry... they look at us with a lot of anger. A lot of anger.”
Another employee recounted daily situations of high stress because they were being forced to take on far more work than was humane. “The first day I had to train someone, I was working a double. I was washing dishes and serving tables,” the employee said. The business was hosting a large event that day, which the employee also had to work.
“I can’t do all of them at once,” they said. “Some days, I’ve completely broken down, and just cried in the office.”
An anonymous employee described how some days, their bosses would show up to work impaired by drugs or alcohol, and said the bosses’ conduct would be the worst on those days.
“When they come to work drunk... they talk about things you shouldn’t talk about,” they said. The employee recounted times their drunk boss groped them in a sexually abusive manner while the employee was working. When the employee made it clear that they did not like it, the boss laughed as if it had been a joke. The employee could not go on to report the incident, knowing that if they did so, their boss could harm their ability to continue making a livelihood.
Another anonymous employee spoke on a different workplace, where higher-ups would often offer alcohol to underage employees while working. “You go in there, and you see all those girls [employees] drunk and… (the managers) kind of just throw it under the rug. No one knows about it,” they said. This employee said they also experienced sexual harassment by higher ups on the job, but was able to stop it by threatening to tell other managers. Other people in that workplace, they said, have been taken advantage of even further, oftentimes underage girls. “Nothing is ever done. Ever,” they said.
One employee said that the constant abuse comes from the fact that they feel seen as something more like a machine or an animal in the workplace. “I think it’s really sad that they treat us like this, so badly. They don’t see us as what we are, they don’t see us as humans, as people, they see us as something like animals. And they almost tell you that that’s how they are. They don’t see you as people,” they said, describing how in times when they have passed by their boss on the street, “Instead of saying ‘Hi, how are you?’ they walk to the other side. You know what it means. That they have you, because you make them money, because you work for them, not because you are something like human.”
They recounted times where bosses would rather an overcooked steak “get thrown away than an employee eat it” and that the simple lack of even thanking employees for their work ends up making a large impact. They spoke about times being one of the few employees working in the business and noted that often, “the bosses don’t see that I’m alone, don’t see that I’m running. They don’t see it. They don’t value you. They could at least say ‘Thank you so much, you’ve done a great job,’ and when they don’t say this, it’s so disappointing.” Just being told thank you, they said, “would fill me. I don’t blame the money, with a thank you, that would fill me. But no.”
E. recounted that their place of work often created physically dangerous conditions which their management repeatedly left unaddressed. They described the equipment there as “quite outdated and pretty dangerous.” One piece of equipment at the park had a weight limit to protect the people operating and using it, but this limit was never enforced by the bosses responsible for doing so, E. said.
“The management would talk about it like ‘Oh yeah, that’s going to change, we’re going to respect that,’ E. said. “And almost every single serious accident that year involved someone who was over the weight limit. Management could have done something to change that, but they didn’t,” they said.
E. recounted that this neglect led to “a lot of serious stuff — a lot of hospital visits, a lot of concussions” for both employees and guests alike. Employees would often suffer from arm and back injuries when they had to operate the equipment with people over the weight limit.
For example, one day a guest who was too heavy for the equipment was still let up the hill and “went down the slope and hit the mats at the bottom wrong and flipped over. There was so much blood that we had to stop the whole [operation] and shovel the blood out of the way, so the other guests wouldn’t see it. That kind of thing,” E. said.
Another time, one of the employees got a head injury while operating the equipment. When the employee went to the supervisor and asked to leave, “The supervisor was like ‘No, you cannot leave. You stay and you work.’ [The injured employee] stayed the rest of the day, but then didn’t come the next day, because [they were] in the hospital with a head injury,” E. said.
Lack of fair pay
Across their different workplaces, all of the employees interviewed for this article said they do not receive fair pay for their work.
One employee said that while working in the same business for almost half of their life, the pay raise they received over that time came to a total of $2 an hour.
Another said that before pandemic pay laws took effect in 2020, they had never once been paid overtime wages. For over twenty years, they worked overtime hours almost every day of the week.
Another employee said that situations like this are not uncommon across Mono County. They themselves had worked in a previous job where overtime hours were never recorded.
“They don’t want to pay anyone any more for the work that they put in,” said another employee. “They just want to pay them the least amount they can get away with.” This employee described this their boss doing everything to avoid paying employees overtime, even when the amount of work they were tasked to do often felt impossible to finish without starting into overtime hours. They also described having heard that employees were not allowed to ask managers about getting a raise in any serious way. “Apparently, we’re not allowed to ask for raises in a serious way. We can joke around like, ‘Oh, I need a raise,’ and like laugh about it…. someone said that they heard (a manager) say that it was not in our budget to be able to pay workers more,” they said.
Without employees, there is no Mono County
One common recognition that ran through every interview with employees across the county was an understanding of the essential place their roles hold in this region. “We are the foundation to these businesses, being able to run the way they are being ran. It’s not management doing anything. It’s all of us,” said D.. “We are the reason why this town is still running. If everyone were to just up and leave… there would be nothing. Tourists wouldn’t be able to go get food. They wouldn’t have lodging, they wouldn’t have entertainment. If people really thought about it, it’s not the owners doing all of this. They just own it, the property, but they don’t run it. There’s a difference.”
A. had similar thoughts. “No one has the same experience [as I do],” they said, meaning that the business “is not going to be the same” and “is going to have problems [without my being there].”
A. views their role in the workplace in this way, too — they keep it running. “It's been many years in the kitchen, I know it like the back of my hand,” they said.
Another employee, B., reflected on the irony of the mistreatment. “The people who live in those apartments are the people that keep these towns alive, the people who work in hotels, restaurants, and they don’t value them. They don’t build more apartments.”
“You (bosses) are not cleaning the rooms. You’re not feeding the people. You’re not booking the appointments. You’re not doing any of that. You’re just there to take the money,” said D..
Tracing the problem
Employees believe the source of this mistreatment and exploitation comes down to racial and economic inequities in the county.
“(The owners)… I think they are racist. I feel that they are racist and they have us because we earn money” said one employee. They described the different methods by which they said white employers can take advantage of their non-white employees by leveraging racism, language barriers and citizenship status. The employee said there have been many times where they wanted to speak up to their bosses, or try to hold them accountable, but the language barrier made that difficult. "It’s not because I'm scared, it's because of the language.... it’s going to make me angry, and I'm not going to be able to answer,” they said.
C. also described the source of mistreatment in the workplace as racism. “They view us with a lot of anger. They’re always going to have hatred for us.”
In prejudice like this, labor becomes tied to race. “What I’ve noticed is that where the white people lack things, the Hispanic person has to go in [and do the work]… I feel like that happens a lot here,” said B., reflecting on the way that even well-intentioned bosses will often compliment Latino employees on their hard work, yet hold them to extremely different standards than white employees. Intentionally or unintentionally, this would appear in actions such as being unequally stringent about vacation time or expecting Latino employees to take shorter breaks than white ones.
“That’s the division between the white boss and the Hispanic essential workers,” said B.. “In a way, there’s always this feeling of ‘I’m different than you, so maybe I’m better than you,’” they said.
Factors like this have created a system of labor where employees are never valued in the same way that providing for the tourist, or making money for the owners, are. B. said that this dynamic became “amplified” in 2020 when many essential workers were forced to work through the pandemic. “(Businesses) cared more about making money than they did about their workers,” they said. “The question was never ‘I don’t know how to pay my workers; can you guys get me something; can the government give me money so that I can pay everyone, because they have rent to pay, they have families.” B. said. “No, it was like ‘I need to keep my business going because of me.’” … it was never about the people.”
What to do now?
Some employees spoke about the importance of people better understanding labor conditions in this area; a place that is oftentimes better known for other things, like its scenic outdoor value.
“I don’t think anyone has ever thought about how it is working in these small towns, these drive-through towns,” said Employee D.. They said that while plenty of tourists are kind and understanding, “We get those people who have money, and didn’t have to work a 9 to 5 to be able to get by, like most of us have, or our parents have. They’re coming up here expecting us to get good pay because we’re working in a ‘small business…’ I feel like people just assume it’s the same for everything here, but it’s like ‘No, there are some shitty people here, let me tell you that. We do not get to escape from big corps [corporations] like you think we do.”
B. said that this misunderstanding extends to people who call this place home, too. “I feel like everyone (here) lives such a different experience,” they said. Middle-and-upper-class residents “get to live this amazing life where they get to enjoy holidays, they get to enjoy Night of Lights, the Margarita Festival, but then all of these essential workers, they never do. And then they get the shit end of the town, the run-down apartments. There’s just two different lives,” they said.
Comparing the drastic wealth differences within one town can be shocking, said B., who mentioned The Jonas Brothers’ mansion as an illustration. “It’s like a street above all those ‘ghetto’ streets,” they said. “It’s sad. And I feel like those people wouldn’t imagine that’s going on, so they just ignore it. In a way, to me, it’s a racist but privileged way.
The employees interviewed for this article said it’s not likely the changes will come from the owners. A. said, “I don’t think these bosses are going to change. They’re not going to change, they never will change.” C. said that the only thing that would change their place of work would probably be to shut it down and restart with different bosses and a different management system.
But maybe employees themselves can change something. “(The bosses) don’t want to see us united,” said C.. “We scare them.”
“I feel like slowly but surely, people are seeing what I’m seeing,” said D.. “We shouldn’t have to put up with it… we could do something about this. Maybe what we’re doing isn’t what we should be doing.”
“I believe that everyone has the right to be treated like a person,” said A..
“If tourists are number one, then essential workers have to be number one right next to them,” B. said.
“More people are going to step up,” said D., noting the raising awareness of this injustice. “All these drive through towns, there are probably hundreds of people, thousands of people, going through the same thing in the Eastern Sierra.”
***If you have experiences working in service industry jobs here in the Eastern Sierra that you want to share, please contact email@example.com in English or Spanish. Even if you don’t want anything to be published, please reach out, we are trying to better document this developing story.***
IF YOU NEED HELP OR WANT TO KNOW MORE
There are not any unions at any of the service industry jobs in the county at this time. The Times has compiled a list of the resources that overlap most closely with the issues described in this article, while noting that there is a lack of services specifically targeted for employees and workplace justice.
• Mono County Social Services: This agency is dedicated to helping all Mono County residents in times of economic stress and while it does not help with specific employment problems, it is a good resource for food and cash assistance as well as health insurance needs rising from low wages or other economic stresses. Their services are available to anyone living and working in Mono County They have bilingual staff.
Walker area: 107384 Hwy 395. Call 530-495-1262
Bridgeport area: 37 Emigrant Street. Call 760-932-5600
Mammoth Lakes area: 1290 Tavern Road. Call 760-924-1770
• Mono County Behavioral Health: This is also a good place to start if your job is making you miserable or causing serious mental health distress. Their services are free and the staff is bilingual. Mono County Civic Center, 1290 Tavern Road, Suite 276, Mammoth Lakes. Call 760-924-1740. Crisis Intervention/ Emergency: 911. After-Hours/ Access Line: 800-687-1101
• California Indian Legal Services is also home to the Eastern Sierra Legal Assistance Program and the Inyo/Mono Senior Legal Program, under which CILS’ Bishop office serves eligible clients living in Inyo, Mono, and Alpine Counties, on matters unrelated to Federal Indian Law. CILS serves eligible clients of all backgrounds under these programs, not only Native Americans. The best thing to do is pick up the phone and tell them your story. If CILS can help, they will, and if not, they will do whatever they can to guide you to other services. Unless there is a conflict of interest or potential conflict, CILS is able to speak with any person seeking legal advice, they confirmed in an email to the Times. “If we cannot offer direct services, we find a referral that suits their needs,” CILS stated.
Contact them at: 873 N. Main Street, Suite 120, Bishop, CA 93514
• Department of Fair Employment and Housing: For employment law violations, this is the California state agency to contact. Call them at 800-884-1684 or go to
• If you wish to file a complaint, the complaint process is outlined here: