Worker shortage has local governments scrambling

Published 6:42 pm Tuesday, December 7, 2021

By Dan Gunderson

The Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston, Minn., can house 200 inmates, but this week, a 60-bed housing unit will close, cutting the jail capacity to 140.

Tri-County Community Corrections is operated by Polk, Norman and Red Lake counties.

The jail needs about 38 full-time officers to meet state staffing requirements, but Executive Director Andrew Larson says the rate of staff turnover has become unsustainable.

“This year, for example, we’ve had 40 resignations through Nov. 30, 2021. Last year we had 20,” said Larson.

Staff departures have been climbing since 2016, but the issue reached a critical point this year.

In the past, Larson said the average staff turnover was six or seven positions a year.

“It wasn’t that long ago that I had really stable employees within the jail, people with 10-15 years of experience. Now half of my corrections officers have less than 12 months of experience,” he said.

Larson is reinventing a correction officer training program in hopes that will help slow the staff churn.

“It’s something we have to do if we’re to stand any chance of getting a handle on the turnover issues that we’re experiencing,” said Larson. “If we don’t do something now, we’re going to just continue to have the same issue over and over.”

He wants to reopen the closed unit of the jail in four months, but he’s not certain that can happen.

Reducing the jail capacity means some counties and the U.S. Marshals Service will need to find alternative inmate housing, something Larson said is likely to be a challenge with most jails near capacity.

Clay County, Minn., is also struggling to maintain adequate staffing at its jail and juvenile detention center in Moorhead, Minn.

“We never had the problems that we’re having now, prior to COVID and the pandemic. So now that we’re hopefully coming out of the pandemic, where did all those workers go?” said Human Resources Director Darren Brooke.

Not only is it more difficult to get applicants, Brooke said, more people are walking away from the job shortly after they start.

“And so you’ve got some time and effort into each one of these new applicants, and then they find out maybe this job isn’t what I thought it was going to be, or ‘I’m not interested in this line of work anymore.’ So then you’re starting at ground zero again with the next applicant,” he said.

Brooke said the county has increased pay substantially in the past couple of years, but pay is only one factor for an increasingly mobile workforce.

On the other side of the state in the Arrowhead region, Cook County Administrator James Joerke is trying to manage a growing number of open jobs.

“We’re actually recently up to a dozen vacancies, which is approaching 10 percent of our workforce,” said Joerke.

Especially noticeable at this time of year are two vacant snowplow driver positions.

“When you have a shortage of drivers, obviously it means that our routes don’t get plowed the same day of a weather event,” Joerke said. “And that can really impact the safety and well-being of our residents.”

Finding skilled, qualified truck drivers can be a challenge, he added, and it’s increasingly difficult to find workers willing to take jobs where they might be called in on weekends or holidays.

The vacant jobs put more stress on other employees. Joerke says he’s recently been holding listening sessions with employees.

“Burnout is real,” he said, “it’s happening. It’s causing some of our good employees to think about working for other businesses here in Cook County, taking service jobs.”

Joerke said some service jobs are paying $20 an hour or more.

“And those are jobs where you don’t have to bring your work home with you. And so that can be appealing for folks who are doing social work, and who have really kind of emotionally and mentally taxing jobs,” he said.

Another complicating factor that’s not unique to Cook County is an acute shortage of affordable housing and day care. Joerke said that makes it much more difficult to convince workers to relocate to a remote location like his county.

“What we’re seeing are two primary general positions that are tough to fill. One is public safety, and trying to recruit and retain those with specialized backgrounds, especially when it comes to engineering or skilled trades,” said Brandon Fitzsimmons, an attorney at Flaherty and Hood in St. Paul who works on labor and employment issues for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

Fitzsimmons said increased public scrutiny is a key factor contributing to the reduced number of applicants for law enforcement jobs, but he says all public employees are feeing more pressure from the public and politicians questioning how they do their jobs.

“That makes the employees themselves maybe a little more reluctant to keep that job and make it a 30-year job. So you know, the mindset of ‘You work in the public sector, you’re going to be there for decades,’ isn’t there. Cities want to try to promote it, but that’s not the mindset of the current workforce,” said Fitzsimmons.

Workforce woes have increased substantially in the past two years in the city of Waite Park, near St. Cloud, Minn.

“Typically, you would see probably 200 applications for a police officer position and now I would say we are very lucky to get 20,” said City Administrator Shaunna Johnson.

In the past couple of years, the worker shortage has affected nearly every service, from policing to cutting the grass. Last year, the city went through the hiring process 26 times.

“In a city that has 45 full-time employees, that’s significant,” said Johnson. “And so managing all of those and trying to be able to keep our head above water is a little bit of a challenge.”

Johnson said local governments will need to look for creative solutions. When Waite Park couldn’t find temporary workers to unpack a shipment of chairs for its new amphitheater, the city gave a donation to the local Boy Scouts in exchange for the work.

The city hired a contractor to mow grass when seasonal worker positions went unfilled, but Johnson said the contractor also had a labor shortage that made it difficult to keep the grass trimmed.

Johnson doesn’t expect the labor situation to improve anytime soon.

“We’ve known that the baby boomers, the largest generation, was going to be retiring, right? We’ve been talking about that forever,” she said. “The significance of it is that it happened so abruptly as a result of COVID.”

State workforce data shows every region of Minnesota has fewer workers than a year ago.

And workforce growth will be stagnant as more baby boomers retire.

“This is the number one issue that we hear about,” said Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties.

Ring met with officials in every county this fall and the labor force was the top issue from large urban counties to the most remote rural areas.

Ring says local governments are raising pay, trying creative approaches to make jobs more appealing, or stretching the existing workforce. But as the worker shortage drags on, providing some services might become more difficult.

“We keep pretty close track of this, and I haven’t heard of people saying, ‘Well, we’re just having to get out of that business right now,’ or ‘We can’t meet that need,’” Ring said. “But I’m hearing a lot of concern about — ‘We’re on the edge of that right now.’”