It's complicated. At my resort we have a mix of "ski for food" instructors and "ski for fun" instructors. At any individual line up, it's up to the supervisor to determine the proper match up between the lessons that need to go out, the skills of the available instructors, who wants to work, who needs to work, who doesn't want to work, who's hurting/sick, who's on schedule etc. In years past we've had complaints from ski for fun pros who were worked too much and did not get enough time to free ski or clinic. We've heard lots of horror stories here on Epic where lessons have gone to rookie staff members solely because they got paid less, or work was assigned for political reasons, etc. There are different stories at different resorts and the situations change over time as well.
The relationships between the various entities is also complex. In the West, most ski resorts are on Forest Service land. In the East most resorts are not and thus have no interaction with the Forest Service. When it comes to Forest Service involvement in ski school issues, it's a very tiny part of their interactions with resorts. They've made 2 calls that are relevant here. First, due to the massive investment cost required to establish and operate a ski resort, resorts need to have exclusive rights to offer services on the leased property in order to be economically viable. Second, that because a large portion of the visitors to ski resorts on Forest Service land are travelling significant distances that is not a significant burden for skiers to travel to different resorts to force ski resorts to behave competitively. Don't expect much from the Forest Service if those calls are not changed. The ski school relationship with government comes mostly in the issue of foreign labor. There are different types of visas used by foreign ski pros. Each have their own particular quirks and politics. At my resort when we started bringing in kids from South America to work in the school, many regular pros proffered conspiracy theories and predicted gloom and doom. But these kids have been mostly a god send because they do the work that was keeping the ski for fun people from free skiing. I say "mostly" because the trainers freak out every season when we get 1 or 2 kids that practically have no on snow experience and we have to get them up to speed very quickly at a time when we are very busy with other training tasks. But somehow we manage and by the end of the season we're glad we had these kids. Those are student visas and they are practically unlimited. Resorts that bring in experienced pros on the rarer professional visas have to prove that the jobs can't be filled by American workers. One can easily argue that the "proof" is usually a joke and that there would be no problem filling these jobs if they paid more, but between the fees paid, the rules involved, the ever changing quotas, the political gamesmanship it should be pretty easy to get everyone to agree that this piece of the issue is a mess. But given the relatively low number of pros involved and the recent history where one year resorts had virtually all of their usual visa requests denied, it is pretty easy to argue that this issue has little impact pro or con on the health of the instruction profession. The transition from having these people to not having hardly any and back was hardly a blip on the radar. Government intervention on the labor side is mostly lacking because instructor unions are lacking. There are some labor law concerns such as minimum wage, not getting paid for showing up for line ups (but there does not seem to be much interest in pursuing that because most resorts (cough) compensate pros with free ski passes) and workmen's comp. Without a union, there's not much bang for the buck here.
I can tell you that at my resort not having enough instructors is much larger problem than having too many. Sure we have some days when it seems that there are more pros on hill than paying customers. On those days, we get more training and free skiing in, the ski for food people get all the lessons and people go home early. Forecasting visits is an inexact science and much more difficult for day resorts than destination resorts. We also often ask people to stay beyond their shift in case they are not needed and give them nothing but thanks if they aren't used. But most resorts these days are very good at nailing down the "order of magnitude" in advance. While my resort does not directly compensate for "showing up", we do have various indirect compensation designed to make up for accumulated uncompensated miscellaneous contributions. The year end bonus, gift card and free skiing passes/vouchers based on hours taught are the biggest. One way to look at this is that the more hours you taught, the more you were "there" and probably the more you showed up and did things you weren't paid for. We also get free food (e.g. cookout days, free fruit in the pro room and a nice Christmas dinner for working on Christmas day). It's not exact, but it's better than nothing. I'm sure there are some resorts where the "benefit" is not getting your butt kicked on the way out the door. My point here is "it's complicated".
There is sizable pay gap between larger destination Western resorts and smaller/Eastern resorts. My guess is that at least 50% of US instructors are getting paid within $2 of minimum wage and only getting paid for hours worked. My guess is that 1/2 of the full time ski pros get paid for less than 30 hours per week on average. NSAA did a study comparing US and European instructor pay. They determined that the pay was comparable (e.g. a full time experienced pro could make approximately $30K per 5 month season). A lot of people will take exception to that conclusion, but we've also heard stories here on Epic of pros who are fully booked all season every season. My guess is that a few of those pros are not waiting tables at night. But there's no need to guess. There's no denying that when the best paid pros are only doing ok, it's obvious that there a lot of instructors who aren't being paid well. And it's obvious that a lot of skilled talent is either walking away from the profession or not coming in the first place because of the low pay. Virtually everyone agrees that this is a problem. The future trend looks even worse. There is very little agreement on how to solve this problem. There is no shortage of ideas. It's complicated.