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Job vacancies take toll on city of Durango programs, services

Seasonal and part-time positions, like snowplow drivers, are especially difficult to fill
Ian McCarthy, a lifeguard at the Durango Community Recreation Center, keeps an eye on people in the leisure pool Friday at the center. McCarthy was a lifeguard at the center during his high school days. He came back to Durango from college for Thanksgiving and Kim Ebner, aquatics operations supervisor with the city of Durango, talked him into working a few hours. The city can’t find enough lifeguards and are having to adjust the swimming pools hours of operation each day. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Whether it’s snow removal, landscaping or youth recreation services, seasonal workers serve important roles for the city of Durango. Yet, the city is struggling to fill part-time positions, which is threatening the quality of services and creating longer wait lists for some city programs.

Durango-La Plata County Airport, Durango Parks and Recreation and Durango Public Works departments are looking for seasonal staff to fill the ranks.

Overall, the city employs more people than it did one year ago. In 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic was more front and center, 20% of the city’s job force was unfilled, or about 80 of the city’s 400 full-time positions.

Today, about 14% of city positions are unfilled, just a few digits shy of pre-pandemic levels when 10% of positions were unfilled, said Tiffany Alsdorf, a human resources specialist with the city of Durango.

The city is looking to hire emergency 911 dispatchers, several administrators, receptionists, cashiers, police officers, aircraft rescue and firefighters, and to fill a variety of part-time recreation gigs, according to a jobs page at https://bit.ly/3F2OG0Q

Recreation programs suffer from job vacancies
The swimming pools at the Durango Community Recreation Center close early on Fridays and Saturdays because the city can’t find enough lifeguards. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Kimberly Ebner, aquatics operations supervisor at the Durango Community Recreation Center, said low wages, rude customers and high safety demands that lifeguards face day in and day out all contribute to a lack of lifeguards in the city’s aquatics program.

Public demand for Durango’s aquatics and gymnastics programs is so high that parents will stay up until midnight waiting for program registration to open so they can enroll their children as fast as possible. Wait lists commonly grow to 100 applicants, and Ebner is constantly getting calls from parents inquiring about how to enroll their kids, she said.

She said swimming is a life skill – one children should learn for their own safety.

Lifeguards at the recreation center are typically between 15 and 20 years old; usually they are students in high school or college. But recently, Ebner has been seeing more retirees applying for positions.

The aquatics program currently employs about 30 lifeguards, and Ebner wishes she had 15 to 20 more, which would create more flexibility in work schedules. About 70 lifeguards are typically hired during the summertime when they are stationed at Lake Nighthorse in addition to the recreation center pool.

Students have tough class and sports schedules to work around, and Ebner tries to be as flexible as possible with work schedules. She said flexibility is a big perk of the job.

“We understand that you can’t be committed to a set schedule,” she said. “You have school classes, you have homework, you have sports. … We work around that.”

Commercial drivers needed in public works
Dump trucks fitted with snowplows sit Friday in the Durango city maintenance yard. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The city is routinely in need of commercial drivers, ground maintenance personnel, and coaches and instructors. With winter on the way, the city’s public works department is hosting a job fair on Dec. 14 in its search for snowplow drivers, said Allison Baker, public works director.

Durango Public Works has staffed seven CDL (commercial driver’s license) drivers and is looking to hire five more, Baker said.

Her department feels the effects of employment vacancies the most during winter, when snowplow drivers are needed to keep Durango’s streets navigable, but vacancies impact public works year-round, she said.

The public works department relies on drivers to operate loaders, graders, backhoe excavators and bobcat utility vehicles. She said being a CDL driver in public works makes for an interesting job because no two days are quite the same.

Baker said hiring across public works has been impacted by greater demand for higher salaries, and it is the same case for CDL drivers. Hiring staff at higher rates has forced the department to reexamine its budget.

“The pay scale of pretty much anybody in the U.S. has been impacted since 2019,” she said. “We’re all running leaner and meaner than we did then as a result of the fact that salaries are significantly higher.”

Negative perceptions about tradework has also made it more difficult to fill positions at municipalities across the country, she said.

“ (Tradework is) currently perceived by certain people as less glamorous than it might once have been,” she said. “I personally have utter and complete respect for the trades.”

She said CDL drivers and other trade workers are the “backbone” of public works. But there aren’t enough young workers stepping up to fill the ranks vacated by people aging out of the workforce.

“There’s a perception in the world that in order to be successful you have to have a college degree, and that is not true,” Baker said. “There are great opportunities for people in the trades.”

Durango Public Works offers retention pay for longtime employees and the city maintains competitive wage rates, she said. And at the end of the day, the city doesn’t want to sacrifice the level of service it provides to residents.

Cost of living does no favors
Tom Westwater, a lifeguard at the Durango Community Recreation Center, talks with Kim Ebner, aquatics operations supervisor with the city of Durango, on Friday in the swimming area of the center. The city can’t find enough lifeguards and is having to adjust the hours the swimming pools are open. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The high cost of living in Durango and outlying areas is an unavoidable topic in job interviews, said Tony Vicari, aviation director at Durango-La Plata County Airport.

The airport is about 90% staffed, and vacancies haven’t terribly affected operations, he said. But certain positions, like snowplow driver, are vital in the winter to keeping things operational, he said.

Certain positions like airport firefighters and operations positions attract nonlocal applicants, Vicari said, but the lack of affordable housing deters some would-be applicants.

Ture Nycum, Durango Parks and Recreation director, said his department is also having a hard time filling seasonal maintenance and groundskeeping roles, in addition to a landscape architect position that the city can’t seem to fill.

“We would love to be able to completely fill that demand but between staffing and then just also physical space limitations, it does prove challenging at times,” he said.

Thomas Ferris, director of GameTime, the city’s recreation program, said there is a wage discrepancy between him, his staff and other employees.

He said he works 27 hours per week, the maximum to be considered a part-time employee, and still struggles to pay the bills while attending college as a full-time student.

The city’s job listing for its GameTime director position says the part-time gig pays $14.50 hourly for someone with a degree in early childhood education or development. Duties include overseeing a staff of four to five team leaders and being responsible for the safety and well-being of 25 to 30 children.

Nycum said he’d love to offer part-time employees more hours, but the 27-hour threshold is built into the laws that define part-time and full-time positions.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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