Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Seasonal Worker Shortage Hurts Parks System

Decades of staff cuts forced parks to rely on a now-disappearing seasonal workforce.

By - May 25th, 2022 09:36 pm
Dineen Park. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Dineen Park. Photo by Carl Baehr.

It’s not just lifeguards. Milwaukee County Parks is struggling to fill many of the seasonal positions it needs to staff the parks system during the summer.

“What’s happening to lifeguards is a bellwether for what’s happening to all of our seasonal workforce,” said James Tarantino, interim deputy parks director.

Milwaukee County Parks relies on hundreds of seasonal workers to staff everything from golf courses to the July 3 fireworks. Or, at least, it used to. The MPS school year is wrapping up and summer is about to kick into full gear in Milwaukee and parks only has approximately two-thirds of the seasonal staff it needs.

Much of the focus during the past few years has been on the lifeguard shortage.

“This model that we have of being so overly reliant on people being seasonally severed… Hopefully coming back and operating all of our facilities. It’s not reliable. It’s not a sustainable situation,” Tarantino said.

He and parks director Guy Smith said that budgeting for more full-time parks staff that work year-round, with benefits, is one way to begin to address the seasonal worker shortage.

There are many factors contributing to the hiring difficulties, ranging from age-demographic shifts in Milwaukee’s population to more young people pursuing other activities like internships during the summer to structural inequities in swim access and training. But “the pandemic and the hiring freeze that we had in 2020 really broke the chain of rehiring,” Tarantino said.

Before the pandemic, the county was still struggling with a lifeguard shortage. In 2019, it only managed to hire 135 lifeguards. But then the pandemic hit and pools were closed and training and recertification classes were canceled. By 2021, the county was able to hire fewer than 100 guards for the season.

The county board responded by increasing the starting pay and funding a series of recruitment, retention and referral bonuses that could potentially net some employees as much as $800 in bonuses.

But that wasn’t enough. Though at a meeting of the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee Tuesday, some supervisors said the department did not properly market the bonuses. But the parks department did undertake an extensive marketing campaign to advertise the starting pay well above $15 an hour.

Parks officials also said they were not allowed to enter MPS high schools to recruit students. Urban Milwaukee could not reach an MPS spokesperson to comment on this alleged practice.

“The lifeguard shortage that we’re experiencing, everyone is, and that inherently breeds competition among the entities,” Tarantino said.

But as parks officials noted, it’s not just the lifeguards. It has struggled to hire the full budgeted number of workers in every seasonal category.

“And unfortunately, what we’re bracing for,” Tarantino said, “is this to become a systemic year-over-year gap in vacancy on the seasonal side.”

“As we work on the 2023 budget, if there is the willingness and support of the board to have us be able to fill full-time frontline staff,” that could help, Smith said. “I’m not saying that’s going to be a walk in the park, pun-intended, but I really think that could help us be able to retain our workforce.”

As an imbalance between shared revenue from the state and the cost to operate county government has grown for more than the past decade, the parks department, which is operated without a state mandate, has seen its staff and annual budget continue to shrink.

In 1985, the parks department had 1,195 full time employees, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum. In 2021, it had less than 400. But the department still manages over 15,000 acres of land including 157 parks, and more than 200 miles of trails.

Meanwhile, the recreational services and attractions are increasingly relied upon to generate revenue for the department’s annual budget. So much so that revenue from the golf courses can make or break the annual budget. And many of these services are staffed with seasonal workers.

“We are members of this community as well,” Tarantino said. “The level of service that’s being provided is not acceptable by our standards, we want to be able to operate as many facilities as we can.”

Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

2 thoughts on “MKE County: Seasonal Worker Shortage Hurts Parks System”

  1. Swaterhouse says:

    This happened last year….and I am disappointed to see that a whole year has gone by and nothing has changed! WHY is recruitment for these jobs not in MKE High Schools? It would be a WIN.. WIN! They are great summer season jobs…great paying jobs…and perfect for students! Kids would learn commitment, responsibility, appreciation from community, and the pride of a paycheck. Kids need positive things to do in the summer and this would be achieved for the student workers AND for the neighborhood kids!! Parks and pools maintained and open…basketball & tennis courts and playgrounds in good repair!

  2. NieWiederKrieg says:

    $15 per hour is now “slave wages”, thanks to Joe Biden’s price hikes.

    Just got a prescription from my urologist for Silodosin… $800 for a 3 month supply (90 pills)…

    P.S. Thanks for doing nothing about the outrageous cost of prescription medicine, Tammy Baldwin. I’ll remember you the next time you run for your Senate seat.

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