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Billings Parks and Recreation struggles to find enough seasonal employees

Billings Parks and Recreation struggles to find enough seasonal employees

Registration for summer camp in Billings is up, way up. 

The city's recreation department runs several day-long summer camp classes designed to help working parents, and registration for these camps has jumped 86% over where it was in 2019.

"As in the year before the pandemic," said Kory Thomson, recreation department director.

The camps are run by high-schoolers and college-age young adults who work all summer and then typically return to school in the fall. And this year they're not showing up.

The recreation department needs at least 40 counselors and as of Thursday they'd hired 18. 

"We're a little concerned," Thomson said. 

It's not just summer camp counselors. Across the city's parks and recreation department many more openings for seasonal jobs exist this summer than the city has applicants to fill them. 

And the concern is that if the city can't hire the number of seasonal workers it needs, Billings Parks and Recreation will have to limit what it offers. 

The Bozeman Chronicle reported on Wednesday that the city has closed its Swim Center on Saturdays due to a lack of lifeguards. A dearth in hiring across the various parts of the city's parks and recreation department has left it "severely" understaffed. 

In Billings, city pools don't open for another three weeks and department officials are hopeful it's enough time to hire the number of lifeguards they need. Teens are still in school and some of them likely haven't started thinking about summer jobs just yet, said parks and recreation director Mike Whitaker. 

So far the recreation department has hired 33 of the 50 lifeguards it needs to staff Rose Park Pool, South Park Pool and the city's wading pools at Pioneer and Hawthorne parks. 

"We're keeping our fingers crossed," Thomson said. "With high school still going, we're hopeful kids will still apply."

The city offers a lifeguard certification course for high-schoolers on May 29 that's still open for registration. Those who pass the class get hired on, Thomson said. 

Maria Bentz is a junior at Senior High and is one of those 33 lifeguards working this summer. She'll be at Rose Park Pool, where she was a lifeguard last summer. 

"I like it," she said. Then she added with a laugh, "I really like it 'cause I can get tan."

Bentz is a competitive swimmer and so spending the summers as a lifeguard seemed like a natural fit. She enjoys working near the water, being out in the sun and hanging out with the other guards. 

Last spring the city scrambled to hire on enough lifeguards as questions of whether the pools would be able open in the midst of the pandemic weren't answered until two weeks before the start of the season. 

Many of the guards the city brought on were college kids who had worked at the pool when they were in high school, a group of potential workers easily accessible to the city. 

Bentz enjoyed the environment. She had just finished her sophomore year and the college-aged lifeguards were friendly to her and easy to look up to. 

"They give good advice," she said. 

But this summer, many of those college students are old enough that they're not returning home over the summer and so won't be available to work for the city.

It highlights one of the reasons the city has struggled to find seasonal workers this year. 

A large portion of the workers hired every summer by parks and recreation are teenagers or young adults who worked the year before as lifeguards, camp counselors or city park caretakers.

Last year, because of the pandemic, the city had to dramatically reduce its summer camp offerings and so hired only a fraction of the camp counselors it would normally hire. City pools ran on skeleton staffs. 

As a result, the city has fewer people it can call back this summer. 

The other factor is pay. Recreation pays lifeguards $11.50 an hour and camp counselors $11 an hour. The parks department pays its seasonal employees between $13 and $14 an hour, wages also paid by many of the city's fast food joints.

The parks department's seasonal employees handle landscaping and care-taking duties at the various city parks — like opening and locking park restrooms in the morning and evenings — and typically the city hires about 50 of them each spring.

So far they've hired 28. Of the 28, 25 are employees returning from last year. 

"It's very challenging," Whitaker said.

In addition, many of the positions require someone who is 18 or older due to required certifications and requirements to operate heavy equipment.

The parks department has yet to hire a weed specialist — the person who sprays weed killer on parkland across the city — as the job requires a specific certification. Similarly, the parks department still needs a seasonal exterminator, a position designed specifically to eradicate Richardson ground squirrels from the city's sports fields. 

Until they get those positions filled with seasonal workers, the parks department uses its full-time employees to do the work, including the person who opens and locks all 27 of the parks department's restrooms. 

Using full-time staff for jobs typically done by seasonal workers runs up the department's overtime, sometimes as much as $1,000 a week. It pulls the full-time workers away from tasks that have to be done regardless, like energizing the various sprinkling systems at the parks, Whitaker said. 

The department also has the option of raising wages, but the parks budget is set by city council and has been a pointed topic of debate among council members for the last two years. 

Still, parks and recreation department officials are optimistic. They look at other municipalities in the state and know it could be much worse, like Bozeman, where officials have already closed pools on Saturdays. 

"I think we're better off than most communities," Whitaker said. 

He's hopeful by the end of spring they'll have the workers they need. 

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