Short supply: Pandemic exacerbates ongoing employee shortages across district departments

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By Evan Lu and Hiba Samdani, News Editor and Co-T/E Life Editor Custodian Kenneth Hill spends four hours each day on his commute to work. The six-year veteran of the custodial staff takes the bus — a two hour ride each way — to travel between Conestoga and his home in Philadelphia. More than 12...

By Evan Lu and Hiba Samdani, News Editor and Co-T/E Life Editor

Custodian Kenneth Hill spends four hours each day on his commute to work. The six-year veteran of the custodial staff takes the bus — a two hour ride each way — to travel between Conestoga and his home in Philadelphia. More than 12 hours of Hill’s day are taken up by his work, but it was not always like this: due to a shortage of custodial staff, the intensity of Hill’s daily workload dramatically increased this year.

The problem isn’t unique to the district or the state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 10.4 million job openings across the nation. Low wages, fear from COVID-19 and changing demographics are only some of the reasons for the shortage. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf is looking to increase minimum wage to incentivize workers’ return to the labor force. Also taking salaries into account, TESD is actively recruiting employees to address the shortage. Throughout the district, there is a need for custodians, substitutes, support staff and cafeteria staff.

Custodians

The custodial staff has been heavily impacted by ongoing staff shortages. In past years, custodians split the workload into three shifts, but this year, there are only enough workers for two. The day shift runs from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and covers the school day, while the night shift runs from 2 p.m. to midnight and covers afterhours sanitation. Additionally, the current staff operates at eight workers compared to the usual 15-worker team. The downsizing is taking a toll on custodians across the board, including Hill.

“It’s routine, man. I get up to wash myself, but I don’t have time to prepare food since it’s 4 in the morning, so I just eat when I get here. I leave at 5 a.m. to get here at 7 a.m.; then, when I leave, I start out at 4 p.m. and don’t get home until 6 p.m.,” Hill said. “Going to work is a routine, and going home is a routine.”

However, the custodian shortage is not new. According to Hill, the last time Conestoga had a full custodial staff was in 2017. Although the pandemic exacerbated the effects of the shortage, Hill attributes the root cause to custodians leaving for more exciting or lucrative opportunities in other careers. He even personally considered leaving to pursue his dream of starting a carpentry contracting business.

“I already have a carpenter’s mentality. I can cut wood, I can measure and cut tiles. That’s how I got this job actually — I did the things that other employees wouldn’t do,” Hill said. “But for me to be able to open up my own company and employ people, it means I have to make a pretty strong amount of money.”

The addition of the school’s new extension only means more work for the custodial staff. With students back in the school and more surface area to clean, Hill and other members of the custodial staff are frustrated with some students’ apparent lack of respect and responsibility.

“Obviously, (the atrium) is a nice place, but you have to hire more people to do that work. The guys are losing their patience. They’re kind of frustrated because the kids don’t listen, they don’t pay attention,” Hill said. “This is high school, not grade school, where you’re preparing yourself to go further (in life). That’s (not just for academics): it applies in every way. Your last school told you to throw your trash away, but now it’s on you. This is preparing you for real life, and if you’re messy in here, then we know what type of actual life you would lead.”

Substitutes

Substitute teachers have also experienced the effects of the employee shortage. The district employs substitutes through the Educating Staff Space (ESS), a forum used to hire support staff. Each substitute is assigned to a specific building and is called in depending on the demand of teachers absent. Although every person’s situation differs, substitute Michael Steinbrecher has been assigned to a classroom every day. 

“Periodically, I’m sent to one of the middle schools. I’m subbing in one of (the middle schools or the high school) every day. It is 95% of the time that I am in (Conestoga High School), I would say,” Steinbrecher said. “When I started the school year, I didn’t know that I would have a regular, everyday sub position.”

In the mornings, substitute coordinator Christine Harper distributes folders with classroom assignments throughout the main office. Substitute teacher Michael Steinbrecher noticed an increase in the number of folders as the school year progressed.

“I feel like just in the course of my day, I see five other (substitutes),” Steinbrecher said. “It’s moving, it’s crowded and there are a lot of assignments. I can’t speak for the specifics, but you just have to open your eyes to see that there’s a big need.”

A shortage in substitutes has led to other members filling in their roles. Last minute absences have left other teachers and the main office staff supervising unattended classrooms. Former science teacher and substitute Frederic Peltier sees this reflected online.

“All the subs get on what they call ‘Aesop,’ which is a board that shows you all your subs,” Peltier said. “When I go on ‘Tredyffrin/Easttown,’ the list is long and extensive. But if you want to sub any day of the week, in any school, the availability is easy.”

Although the reason for the shortage isn’t clearly determined, both Steinbrecher and Peltier feel that insignificant wages are potential drivers.

“I think a lot of subs do this for the money, and the money is not great,” Peltier said. “That’s the least of my concerns. I do it for the fun, but a lot of people depend on it. I know the district has (increased) that amount of money, but they’re in competition with (other school districts) at this point.”

Support Staff

The impact of the pandemic on the supply of support staff around the building differs from the impact on other staff positions. This year, there are about 60 support staff throughout the building, including personal care assistants (PCAs) and aides responsible for managing facilities like the testing center, library and TV studio. This number is comparable to years past, as are the turnover and retention rates. However, assistant principal James Bankert realized that the school received fewer applications for support staff positions this year. 

“There aren’t as many applicants as years past, but the ones we have gotten are outstanding,” said assistant principal James Bankert. “I used to get applicants without a background in education; you would get people submitting to any job postings that they see, and they weren’t very good at working in schools. The few (applicants) we get now want to work in a school and have experience with students, which you wouldn’t be able to tell just from the numbers.”

According to Bankert, there are always a number of support staff positions open. He attributes this to the challenge of finding applicants willing to work only during the school year. The school is actively recruiting employees and updating job listings in hopes of filling the open positions.

Cafeteria Staff

The school district witnessed a 20% decrease in cafeteria staff this year. According to Nutrition and Food Services Director David Preston, the district usually employs 50 cafeteria members, but currently only has 40. 

Conestoga can no longer operate self-service bars due to COVID-19 restrictions, decreasing the need for hired help in that area. Preston moved two servers who would normally work at those positions to other schools, but it wasn’t enough to alleviate the lack of staff. 

“The cook’s position (opened), and the staff member who used to work the salad and pasta bar took that position,” Preston said.

The current staff has adjusted their work methods to accommodate for the shortage. In elementary schools, the cafeteria switched to using disposable trays, while many staff members are working longer shifts to compensate for the missing general kitchen workers.

At the beginning of the school year, the district created ads in an effort to recruit staff in all departments. Preston recalls receiving many responses from potential employees who would abandon the interview.

“I’m all excited about interviewing six people, and then none of them show up or call,” Preston said. “Here they were using me to show unemployment that they were filling out applications.”

To help with the limited labor, Preston works in the kitchen and at the cash register himself, something with which he is not usually tasked. He has been working daily at the elementary schools alongside his staff.

“Everyone is chipping in and doing what they can — including me, including my secretary,” Preston said. “They (the cafeteria staff) take that same attitude, but it wears them down.”

The problem with food service shortages extends far beyond the kitchen. National truck driver shortages have impacted the district’s food suppliers and led to delays in food delivery.

“We’ll have a food delivery scheduled for Wednesday, and we’ll get a call Wednesday morning. They’ll say, ‘We don’t have enough drivers — we’ll try to get there tomorrow,” Preston said. “And then we’ll have to figure out what we’re gonna have to do for lunch. It’s a crazy time.”

Despite the challenges, Preston and his staff endure. 

“We’ll do whatever we’ll do to serve the kids. We haven’t not fed one child,” Preston said. “They (the cafeteria staff) are challenged and stressed at times, but they are all about making sure everyone gets through this together.”


Evan Lu can be reached at [email protected]

Hiba Samdani can be reached at [email protected]

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