Illustration by Leah Schroeder
The low-down on low staff
Labor Shortages at Parkway
With 10.4 million job openings in the United States, 221,266 openings in Missouri and 46 openings in the district, the labor shortage is a pressing issue and one that undoubtedly is affecting our district. This issue has been exacerbated by our current health crisis, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to reconsider their current careers, due to income concerns, health concerns and lifestyle concerns.
“We’re having difficulties finding folks to take some of the jobs that we have. [There is] a selective workforce and we’re just experiencing that,” Principal Jeremy Mitchell said. “The burden just kind of lies on a collective, because everyone is trying to help kids.”
According to Mitchell, Parkway has organized job fairs, incentives and raised pay in order to mitigate the consequences of the shortage. Despite these efforts, the effects of the shortage remain palpable throughout our staff.
“I think there’s unfortunately not the same level of service that we’re used to simply because we just don’t have the individuals and human resources to do things. Our goal is to try to limit that as much as possible, but it means that those who are here are doing a bit more than usual,” Mitchell said. “The challenge is making sure we don’t overburden or overwhelm our individuals who are here, we’re trying to find that balance. We hope that soon the job markets or people’s opinions will change. We think we’re a pretty good place and we want folks to work here.”
The effects of this issue are most apparent within our custodial staff, dietary aides, bus drivers and paraprofessionals, as stated by Mitchell. Read on to take a closer look at how the nation-wide labor shortages are affecting these departments.
Custodial Staff Member Sean Smith has been an employee for 15 years, and his job has been dramatically altered as a result of the current labor shortage. Typically, Smith would work from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., but is now choosing to face longer days as a result of the lack of staff.
“I’ve seen a lot and felt a lot. Believe me, I may be tired, but that’s how it is when you get shortages,” Smith said. “Because we are short, and I’m a team player, I will stay behind and help. It benefits me just as well as it benefits the school. In whatever situation, you’ve got to give it your best and give it your all, then be proud of what you do.”
“I’ve seen a lot and felt a lot. Believe me, I may be tired, but that’s how it is when you get shortages. Because we are short, and I’m a team player, I will stay behind and help. It benefits me just as well as it benefits the school. In whatever situation, you’ve got to give it your best and give it your all, then be proud of what you do.””
— Custodial Staff Member Sean Smith
Smith has noted that the most clear effect of a shortage of workers within the custodial department has been the change in the appearance of the school.
“The labor shortage is hurtful. When you’re short on people, you’re short on your school looking like it should look. That is taxing on other people because when you’re short, you have to fill in for spots,” Smith said. “You can’t give your school your absolute best if you’re short. When you are hired for the job, the job says this is what the criteria takes. If you can’t reach that criteria, then you’re not really completing a job.”
Smith feels that if his line of work was appreciated by the school more, the labor shortage would not be as pressing.
“Every time a student comes down to the cafeteria, they are sitting at a clean table. If you’re going to be the lazy kind of kid that just leaves their stuff there, then you’re asking the custodian to take extra time out to do something that you could have done yourself,” Smith said. “[They’re] working us twice as hard when [they] don’t have to. [The students are] not looking out for [their] fellow students or staff.”
Despite 22 open positions district-wide in the department, Smith has worked to find positivity within the adversity of the labor shortage, as well as encourage unity within the school.
“You have to take the good with the bad. Maybe I did need a personal day to take off and do what I want to do, but when you find out the reason why they couldn’t [give you time off], then you’re understanding. You want to be a team player. There’s no ‘I’ in team,” Smith said. “We are working as a team: staff, students and custodians. If we all work together, then we are one big happy family.”
The cafeteria is facing not only many open positions across the district within the department, but also supply chain issues and shortages with their vendors. Regional Manager of Food Service Kenneth Witte says that the menu of the cafeteria has been affected by these consequences of the labor shortage.
“The labor shortage is pretty apparent. There’s been a lot of change. I feel like it’s an unsolvable problem,” Witte said. ”We have to work with the amount of staff that we have. We had too many items and not enough people making those items.”
Witte has also noticed changes in what is expected of workers, as many within the cafeteria department are facing longer workdays amid the shortage.
“People were getting frustrated and burnt out really easily. We’ve had people coming in earlier and staying later. We’ve had to pick up the slack of the people we’ve not had. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, it’s just change and it will get better,” Witte said.
According to Witte, shortages within the national supply chain have caused issues with the district’s food vendors, which provide the food for breakfasts and lunches in the cafeteria. Vendors have sent replacement products that don’t always align with the cafeteria’s menus. For example, Witte says that a common replacement in the past is replacing chicken patties with chicken tenders.
“Don’t blame the person that’s serving you the food, because you don’t know what they’re going through and you don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes.” ”
— Regional Manager of Food Service Kenneth Witte
“[Vendors are] trying their best and we’re trying our best to make everything work whenever we can. No one understands that from the outside. [Students and staff] think that the food quality is worse than it was, or they don’t have the products that [we] say [we’re] going to have. It’s true, but that’s what we’re stuck with. We just make it work,” Witte said.
Witte feels that students and staff should have more empathy towards the dietary aides.
“[I wish students had] a little more understanding and [knew] that it’s not our fault. It’s no one’s fault really. We’re all in it together. As a human race, we’ve created these supply chains, and now it’s just not working out as it used to. Everyone is thinking on the fly, starting from the bottom to the top,” Witte said. “Don’t blame the person that’s serving you the food, because you don’t know what they’re going through and you don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes.”
Despite the stresses of managing a department with many holes, Witte has worked to find the silver lining in the problem, and encourages those in similar situations throughout the district to do the same.
“I think we should all have a positive outlook. It stinks right now, but it’s going to get better at some point. People are going to start coming in, people are going to come back to work,” Witte said. “Maybe the stars will realign. Maybe everyone that was in this sector before, maybe they’re not the ones who are right for this job. Maybe the people coming in, the next generation of them are the ones who really will excel at this type of work. I just try to stay positive and make work fun.”
On a typical weekday, only one or two employees will be present in the transportations office, which manages all transportation throughout the district. Due to the current labor shortage, most of the office staff joins the bus drivers to help cover all bus routes, according to Operations Manager Steve Jones.
“It’s hard. We’re really working our office staff. They’re trying to keep up with their job and also driving buses. There’s some challenges with them because they get frustrated,” Jones said. “Our challenge is letting [the office staff] know how much they’re appreciated because they’re really stepping up and helping. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to give the service we’re giving right now.”
Jones says the first day of school was especially difficult for the transportation department this year, as all buses were filled to full capacity. The entirety of the department was driving buses for the first day.
“It’s tough [to manage]. It was so short-staffed and everyone was out driving the first day. It was extremely tough. It took a couple days for everyone to get used to the buses being full. It took an adjustment and reassurance. It took training to get them rolling. It was challenging to start up, but we got through it,” Jones said.
It’s very challenging to not have a full staff. We remind [the bus drivers] every day that they are appreciated. I thank them every day, every single day. Without them, we don’t run.”
— Operations Manager Steve Jones
The transportation department currently has eight open positions and is working to recruit drivers across the St. Louis area. Throughout the shortage, Jones says the importance of the department has been underscored.
“You have to have bus drivers or the operation will not run. No matter what you do you have to have drivers. When you’re short, it is very tough. It is very challenging. It’s a situation that we’ve been in a lot,” Jones said. “You just have to continue to work and do the best that you can. It’s very challenging to not have a full staff. We remind [the bus drivers] every day that they are appreciated. I thank them every day, every single day. Without them, we don’t run.”
The issue is on the upswing, as a few drivers are currently in the hiring process and several drivers are training.
“We will continue to work hard and make sure the students get to and from school safely. We will continue to improve. We will get better and get fully staffed. We have to be patient, and we will get there. Eventually, we will get back to where we were. We’re on the right track,” Jones said.
In order to mitigate the effects of operating with one paraprofessional vacancy at West and around 50 vacancies throughout Parkway, Special Education Administrator Valerie Kamhi, who supervises all special education teachers and teacher assistants at West, has helped create several programs to recruit staff. Kamhi says that the district has distributed mailers and advertisements, has worked with colleges and community colleges and has partnered with community organizations in order to reduce the effects of the labor shortage, all to little effect.
“Everyone is aware there’s a staffing shortage across the board and it’s all over the United States. Part of it is just having those kinds of conversations, to say we met as a team, we’re working on how to fill positions, we’re trying to get more people to hire,” Kamhi said. “We want to ensure that we have students supported. We always want to make sure that we’ve got [vacancies] covered as much as possible. We’re able to be flexible as needed.”
Kamhi has faced the most issues with ensuring that there are substitutes in classrooms when teachers are absent. Each morning at 6 a.m., Kamhi will send a group text to department leaders to manage which teachers and paraprofessionals will be absent and how she can move other staff around to cover classrooms with vacancies.
The biggest thing is being able to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Working together as a team is what has helped us be able to work through some of this stuff, because we help each other and we’re able to work together across buildings and across schools.”
— Special Education Administrator Valerie Kamhi
“We are recognizing that it’s stressful and overwhelming for people right now. Everybody feels like they’re doing their job, and then filling in when we have holes and gaps. The biggest piece is how we collectively work together as a team. If we do have somebody out because they have a sick kid or something going on in their personal life, we want them to be able to take that time,” Kamhi said. “Somebody else needs to step up, because it could be the following week that [they’re] out and you want some other people to help you. We talk about how everybody makes deposits and withdrawals from the ‘I need support’ bank. We’re all working through how we step up and step in and help each other.”
Kamhi has made it her goal to be honest and transparent regarding the shortage and lack of substitutes, in order to maintain awareness of the problem. There are also several contingency plans in place in order to mitigate the consequences of the shortage.
“I don’t think [the labor shortage] is going to get fixed tomorrow. I really think that this is going to take us a little while to regroup and figure out what the staffing piece looks like,” Kamhi said. “The biggest thing is being able to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Working together as a team is what has helped us be able to work through some of this stuff, because we help each other and we’re able to work together across buildings and across schools.”
The labor shortage is apparent throughout the nation, and its effects are being felt within Parkway. Mitchell, Smith, Witte, Jones and Kamhi have voiced similar messages of practicing positivity, empathy and patience during this issue. If you or anyone you know is interested in applying for a job within the district, please apply here.
This story was originally published on Pathfinder on November 8, 2021.