The Parkwood Swimming Pool in Kansas City, Kansas, remains closed despite calls from the community to fully staff the pool and open it this summer.

The Parkwood Swimming Pool in Kansas City, Kansas, remains closed despite calls from the community to fully staff the pool and open it this summer.

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Lenexa can’t fill entry-level maintenance jobs. Shawnee watched as firefighter applications fell by nearly half in two years. Kansas City, Kan., closed its only public swimming pool for the summer after struggling to staff it and lingering concerns about the pandemic.

In Lawrence, city officials this spring began hunting for dozens of lifeguards, traditionally the domain of teens and college students. The applicants this time weren’t always who you’d expect.

Marilyn Hull, a 64-year-old former program and communications officer at a local non-profit, applied for and accepted a position. Starting pay is listed at $10 an hour.

“I felt bad for folks, especially kids, who might lose out on some pool time for the second year in a row,” Hull said. “I asked myself how I could help.”

Across Kansas and Missouri, governments are straining to hire workers for an array of positions. Cities, counties, school districts and state agencies are all experiencing trouble filling openings. Low-paid and seasonal jobs— the often unglamorous but vital work that keeps roads repaired, lawns mowed and pools open — have been especially challenging.

“I know we for sure are having a hard time hiring lifeguards and pool staff. We were almost unable to open one of our aquatic centers because of it,” said Shawnee city spokeswoman Julie Breithaupt.

The public sector hiring difficulties mirror complaints from private businesses. Attracting large numbers of talented applicants has become increasingly difficult in recent months as the economy rebounds from the severe pandemic-induced contraction last year.

Some companies are raising wages and promising additional benefits. Others complain that more generous unemployment benefits have stopped individuals from seeking work, an argument disputed by workers and many economists, who say employees are gaining power after years of employers having the upper hand.

But governments face more obstacles in responding. Annual budgets are set well in advance, making it difficult or impossible in many instances to quickly raise pay or offer signing bonuses. Elected officials may resist higher pay or view openings as a way to shrink government through attrition.

“If you have a choice between working for a private sector engineering firm and a public sector engineering firm, you may find that the private sector employer has much greater flexibility to look at the job market and say, ‘you know, it’s a challenge out here right now, I’m not getting the level of candidates that I would like, I will increase the salaries,’” said Gerald Young, senior research analyst at MissionSquare Research Institute, which focuses on state and local government workforce issues.

Government administrators and hiring managers are left to fall back on appeals to public service and helping the community to lure in employees who could find better-paying jobs elsewhere.

“They want to do good stuff. They want to be part of something important,” said Dawn Sweazea, director of talent acquisition at the Missouri Office of Administration.

Public sector employment took a significant hit in Kansas and Missouri during the pandemic. The two states collectively shed nearly 51,000 government jobs as the virus took hold last spring, sending government employment in both states to 20-year lows. About 6% of all government jobs in Kansas and 8% in Missouri were lost.

No single cause explains the reductions. Some departments, such as the Kansas judicial branch, instituted hiring freezes. Kansas courts spokeswoman Lisa Taylor said the judiciary’s overall vacancy rate climbed as a result. In some areas, workers were laid off or not hired at all.

Kansas City halted most of its regular hiring amid budget challenges.

“We are now just getting back to resuming our regular hiring practices and re-staffing all of our secondary functions,” said city manager Brian Platt. “We never had any reductions in essential services and activities like fire and police. But we did pull back on things like staffing the pools, which were at limited capacity anyway.”

More than a year later, government employment in Kansas and Missouri hasn’t fully recovered. Kansas had 3,500 more government jobs in May 2021 than it did in May 2020, its low point. Missouri added 16,000 government jobs over the same period. Collectively, the two states remain tens of thousands of jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

Closing the gap and attracting more applicants will require a significant rethinking in how governments treat employees, according to experts and worker advocates. The pandemic created an opportunity for a reset on everything from pay to remote work and flexible schedules, they say.

Whether governments will seize the moment remains to be seen.

In Kansas, agency heads, the governor’s office and “quite a few of the legislators” understand the importance of change, said Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.

“But I think government is kind of slow to move … into what we would term the future,” LaFrenz said.

Virus worries

When the pandemic arrived last year, government workers across both states were quickly sent home.

Teachers taught over Zoom. In state agencies, officials set up home offices. Judges held hearings via video chat.

Many others, such as police, firefighters and corrections officers, had no choice but to show up in person. The toll on those workers was palpable, sometimes deadly. Six COVID-related deaths have been reported among Missouri prison workers and six among Kansas prison staff, according to The Marshall Project.

As the pandemic has receded, filling high-contact jobs where personal interaction is unavoidable is proving difficult. Shawnee received 62 firefighter applications in 2018. Last year, the city got only 35.

“They say numbers all around are simply lower than they once were,” said Breithaupt, referring to Shawnee’s human resources department.

The Missouri Department of Corrections has dozens of correctional positions posted online. Two prison facilities in northwest Missouri were temporarily shuttered in March because of staffing shortages.

In Sedgwick County, home to Wichita, the jail was 42% short-staffed in April. County commissioners in response approved $2.1 million to raise starting pay from $15.95 an hour to $18.95.

“It’s dangerous, risky work because it wasn’t just the risk of contracting the virus itself or the fear of doing so,” LaFrenz said. “These folks go home to their families and a lot of these communities are small and closely knit.”

Vaccines are now widely available, but concerns about the virus among government workers persist. Vaccinated employees in constant contact with the public may still fear getting infected, though vaccines greatly reduce the risk of severe illness.

And there’s often no guarantee that co-workers are vaccinated either.

At least 15 Missouri state employees were infected in an outbreak at the Truman State Office Building last month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Employees aren’t required to disclose their vaccination status.

In both states, job seekers are still asking about virus precautions.

“Some applicants have expressed health and safety concerns, as most organizations have due to concerns regarding how we ensured the safety of employees during the pandemic,” Overland Park city spokesman Sean Reilly said.

Seasonal jobs hard to fill

As the case numbers have fallen dramatically from their winter peaks and vaccinations have risen, the search for workers is growing increasingly urgent as agencies seek to ramp up services and get back to normal.

But some officials have seen little demand for jobs that pay at minimum or just above minimum wage.

“We continue to find it extremely difficult to fill our entry-level positions which have a starting pay in the $12 to $15 range – street, stormwater, facilities and parks maintenance positions and custodial positions,” said Lenexa city spokeswoman Denise Rendina.

The average time to fill these positions is about 90 days.

“Often, we are closing positions and opening them again later due to inability to fill,” Rendina said. “We have recently contracted out some custodial work due to the inability to hire qualified staff.”

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., has struggled to fill both seasonal and professional openings, said spokeswoman Ashley Hand. Many postings have to be extended to yield any responses, she said. The UG had 59 openings as of June 24.

Seasonal jobs, in particular, have been a battle to fill. Those positions are also among the toughest to go without because unlike with office work, where work can sometimes be spread among fewer people, maintenance and landscape work either happens or it doesn’t.

“Clerk’s office … they can’t just switch hats and go out and start mowing lawns,” Hand said.

Several departments and governments say pay for some positions simply isn’t competitive with what workers can find in the private sector, or, for that matter, in other government jobs. While it’s an issue that predates the pandemic, it’s being exacerbated now as some businesses raise pay to attract applicants.

“For the same job and the same responsibilities, the pay is often a fraction of what you get in the private sector,” said Platt, the Kansas City manager.

For example, private water and sewer companies are poaching city employees for more pay and a better work environment, he said. The city trains many of the workers, giving them professional experience, and then they depart.

Platt said the best message he can deliver to applicants to overcome pay disparities is that working for a city allows people to make a difference directly in their communities.

“It is certainly one of the most satisfying things anyone could do, even for just a short time, to be able to make positive change in the community,” Platt said.

Getting out of ‘reactive mode’

Discussions about pay, benefits and other resources for public sector workers are expected to accelerate in the coming weeks and months. Officials were in a “reactive mode” last year, said Young, the research analyst.

But they now have a better understanding of the health and economic situation in their local area and many governments will reassess their resources as they begin work on new budgets.

“I think we’ll see much more after those budgets have been adopted as to what they are projecting for themselves,” Young said.

Still, no single pay raise or added benefit will immediately solve all issues.

Take lifeguards. One reason for shortages this year is that the pandemic shut down lifeguard training courses, so too few people could earn the required American Red Cross Lifeguard Certification.

Hull, the first-time lifeguard in Lawrence, said the difficulty finding lifeguards existed before COVID-19, with shifting cultural norms around how high school and college students spend their summers.

When she was in her teens, most everyone had a summer job, she said. Now there’s internships, traveling sports teams and year-round jobs for some.

Then the pandemic hit.

“The kids who were lifeguards back in 2020 had to seek other jobs. And no new lifeguards were trained last year, so there are few returning veterans,” Hull said.

“Add to all this the comparatively low pay, and you have a problem.”

The Star’s Katie Bernard and Canwen Xu contributed reporting

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Jonathan Shorman is The Kansas City Star’s lead political reporter, covering Kansas and Missouri politics and government. He previously covered the Kansas Statehouse for The Star and Wichita Eagle. He holds a journalism degree from The University of Kansas.