Whitewater rafting groups lose in minimum-wage dispute

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A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by Colorado rafting outfitters who object to paying a $15 hourly minimum wage to seasonal employees under a new federal rule, rejecting their argument that their permits to use federal land for overnight trips don’t make them federal contractors who must pay the wage.

The Colorado River Outfitters Association and Arkansas Valley Adventure, which offers whitewater rafting tours, sued the federal government in December to block the Biden administration rule, which goes into effect Sunday.

Rafters navigate the whitewater rapids on the Arkansas River in this file photo taken near Salida, Colo., May 20, 2003.  (Associated Press)

They argued the rule will significantly raise the cost to customers who enjoy rafting trips that use federal lands. The association, whose members operate in Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, insisted its members' permits don't make them federal contractors offering services to the federal government, The Colorado Sun reported Friday.

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U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer ruled Monday that outfitters follow other federal rules and must follow the wage rule. He also rejected the outfitters' argument that President Biden exceeded his authority in issuing the new wage mandate, noting that Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had issued similar wage orders.

Tips from a customer donation fund and a last paycheck for employees laid off from Farley’s East cafe, which closed due to the financial crisis caused by COVID-19, sits on a counter at the cafe in Oakland, California, March 18, 2020.  (Reuters / Reuters Photos)

"Plaintiffs have not shown that the government does not contract with them and other outfitters to supply services on federal lands," Brimmer said in his ruling.

The plaintiffs plan to appeal, said Duke Bradford, the owner of Arkansas Valley Adventure, whose company operates whitewater rafting tours from the central Colorado town of Buena Vista.

Bradford, who employs up to 350 guides during peak rafting season from May to September, told the Sun he pays his guides $400 to $500 each for three-night trips booked by customers who pay about $1,000. He also pays the U.S. Forest Service a small percentage of gross revenue from the trips on the Eagle River under a permit he holds from the White River National Forest.

In this Aug. 30, 2012, file photo, whitewater rafters are shown rafting the lower New River Gorge, near Fayetteville, West Virginia.  (Associated Press)

Bradford said he’ll likely end those trips once his permit expires in March since a new one would require him to pay the new minimum wage. He told the court that under that scenario, the trips will be too expensive for customers.

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Whitewater rafting is a lucrative industry in Colorado, with about 430,000 guided rafters generating about $150 million in 2020, according to an April report released by the association. Those figures were down from 542,000 customers and $185 million, respectively, thanks to the impact of the coronavirus on tourism and reduced river flows caused by a megadrought gripping the U.S. West.

In 2014, Obama issued an executive order creating a $10.10 hourly minimum wage with overtime provisions for federal contractors, including recreational firms using federal lands. In 2018, Trump issued an executive order exempting hunting, fishing, mountaineering and rafting guides and other "seasonal recreational services" workers, arguing the minimum wage "threatens to raise significantly the cost of guided hikes and tours on federal lands."

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Biden rescinded Trump’s order and increased the federal minimum wage from $10.10 to $15 an hour in April 2021. The rule requires contractors to pay $22.50 an hour for those working more than 40 hours a week.

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