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Clark County’s recreation, child care facilities struggle to attract employees

By , Columbian Features Editor
Published:
8 Photos
Swim teacher Jane Twinkel, facing, helps young students with their form during a lesson at Kids Club Fun & Fitness in Salmon Creek on Tuesday morning. Kids Club and other facilities offering summer programs have had a hard time hiring workers in a tight labor market. Lifeguards especially are in short supply.
Swim teacher Jane Twinkel, facing, helps young students with their form during a lesson at Kids Club Fun & Fitness in Salmon Creek on Tuesday morning. Kids Club and other facilities offering summer programs have had a hard time hiring workers in a tight labor market. Lifeguards especially are in short supply. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

If it seems like you’ve had a tough time getting your kids into day camps and swimming lessons this summer, it’s not just your imagination. Recreation centers are struggling to hire in a tight labor market as demand for their programs rebounds from pandemic lows.

For example, Kids Club for Fun & Fitness in Salmon Creek managed to staff up for its day camps but hasn’t been able to add back special events. The slate of day camps offered by the city of Vancouver’s parks and recreation department doesn’t include the teen programs offered prior to the pandemic. The YMCA in Orchards is open fewer hours than before, as are two pools operated by Vancouver Public Schools.

“It’s a really hard time to be an employer attracting workers,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.

Unemployment rates whiplashed from record highs early in the pandemic to record lows in recent months.

The recreational and child care facilities that provide summer programming for kids were hit hard by the pandemic and are “disproportionately scrambling to get the workforce back up to speed,” she said. “It’s an exceptionally deep hole.”

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Parents rely on a patchwork of activities to keep their kids occupied over the summer, and it’s not just about summer fun. Day camps, booked by the week for hundreds of dollars, are de facto child care for many school-age children of working parents, while younger children often remain in programs that operate year-round.

“We already knew we had a child care crisis. The pandemic really impacted the field. It’s opened up the conversation of how child care and early learning are part of our economic vitality,” said Debbie Ham, executive director of the nonprofit organization Support for Early Learning & Families.

SELF staffs child care centers operated by Educational Service District 112.

The pandemic shrunk child care capacity, which has yet to rebound. As of this month, Clark County has 187 licensed providers with a combined capacity for 8,110 kids, according to Child Care Aware. That’s down from June 2020 — already several months into the pandemic — when 219 providers had slots for 9,011 children.

ESD 112 would normally have 24 before- and after-school child care centers operating around the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts but had only nine up and running during the academic year that ended earlier this month.

“That absolutely has everything to do with staffing, not because there wasn’t a need,” said Jodi Wall, executive director of ESD 112’s early care and education division. “We are hopeful that we will get enough enrollment and staff to operate all 24 next school year.”

The consortium is operating six school-age centers over the summer, same as before, but with 30 slots each instead of the pre-pandemic 45.

The economics of child care — paying workers more would mean charging more, potentially pricing families out of the market — have always been problematic, Ham said. It’s even more so in a tight labor market where workers can get jobs that pay as well or better at fast food restaurants without the educational requirements or background checks necessary for child care work.

“Many companies start somebody at $20. Our starting pay is $15.60 an hour, and that is up from where it has been,” Ham said. “We don’t have the resources to pay comparable salaries.”

The YMCA had to raise its pay for day camp staff from the state’s $14.49-an-hour minimum wage to $17 to fill all the positions needed to run a full slate of day camps, which take place at schools and other sites around Clark County.

“We saw registrations going up and were nervous we were going to get enough staff, but we did it,” said Eddie White, executive director of Clark County Family YMCA.

Staffing the pool, however, is a different story. The American Lifeguard Association has warned of a nationwide shortage. During the pandemic, lifeguard certification programs shut down along with everything else.

“Anyone with a pool is struggling to find lifeguards,” White said.

Vancouver Public Schools operates two pools — the Propstra and Parsley centers — and still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic hours of operation.

“We shut down for an entire year, so we lost the lifeguards we had to other positions,” said Pat Nuzzo, spokeswoman for Vancouver schools. “It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the staffing to run at full capacity to keep kids at the safe environment with supervision.”

The district has 25 lifeguards on staff now, when normally it would have double that, Nuzzo said.

Kids Club offers swimming lessons, day camps and an indoor jungle-themed playground. The club has about 80 workers, short of the 100 it had pre-pandemic, said Dawn Hinchy, general manager

“It’s been an uphill battle since coming back from COVID,” Hinchy said.

The club has prioritized summer day camps, which accommodate about 90 kids a week, as well as gymnastics and swimming classes. The tradeoff, Hinchy said, is that the club hasn’t been able to bring back special events and birthday parties to pre-pandemic levels.

“I feel like we’re just playing catch-up,” Hinchy said.

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