As US reels from worker shortage, BSSD works to create solution for lack of custodial staff
By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Sweeping the floor of the lunchroom in Lone Peak High School, Wayne McMinn greets two passing students who thank him for his work.
The 70-year-old part-time custodian returns to sweeping but has to catch his breath before discussing what brought him to work for the Big Sky School District four years ago. McMinn explains that he retired from laying carpet for 50 years but still needs to work, so he drives buses and cleans the high school.
BSSD has been advertising open custodial positions constantly, and in the last 16 months has received a few phone calls but no formal applicants, according to Superintendent Dustin Shipman.
The district currently has three custodial employees: McMinn and Brad Lartigue who clean the school part-time and Kary Pemberton who was hired ahead of the 2021-2022 school year as facilities director to oversee custodial staff. Combined, McMinn and Lartigue work enough hours to equal about one full-time employee.
In the past, the two-building school has had as many as eight custodial employees who worked combined hours equivalent to four full-time employees. Shipman said the ideal would be four full-time custodial employees not counting the facilities director.
The problem the school is facing is not unique.
In the wake of the pandemic, which is still flaring up in Gallatin County, economists say a “web of overlapping factors” have contributed to a national worker shortage, according to an Oct. 19 New York Times article, in turn creating a “workers economy” which sees rising wages and employees empowered to be picky about what positions they take.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in October the national labor force participation rate for ages 25-54 rose nearly 2 percent from April 2020 to 81.7 percent, which is about 1 percent short of pre-pandemic numbers.
“We don’t have any help but that’s the same thing we have all over the country,” McMinn told EBS.
Known as “Wayne” or “Mr. Wayne” to the students, McMinn spends a few hours each day cleaning the school between driving bus routes. He also drives the activities bus, taking student athletes to games across Montana, and just this year stepped into the role of transportation manager for the district.
“Everybody is doing what they can,” McMinn said. “The teachers have been great. They have been stepping up doing whatever they can when they can. Of course, the administration, they’re trying their best to alleviate the problem. It’s just something that’s beyond their control. You can’t make people come to work; you can’t make people take a job.”
While McMinn cleans the high school, over in the elementary building, Lartigue, 60, does what he can to keep the building clean on his own.
A custodial employee for nine years, Lartigue is a swim instructor, chaplain for Big Sky Resort and the Big Sky Fire Department, and an Ironman triathlete. He also drives a school bus part-time.
In his free time, he trains for Ironman races and remains deeply involved in the Big Sky community through his nonprofit ministry, Big Sky Resort Ministries. Most recently, Lartigue has been a catalyst in moving the new BASE community center from dream to reality and is helping realize the Phase 2 BASE Aquatic Center as well.
While Lartigue vacuums the hallway of the elementary school, his first task of the evening, he passes by a bulletin board filled with thank-you notes written by students and addressed to custodial staff. He pauses to read a few and smiles.
Lartigue says he enjoys driving a bus and took up the part-time custodial work to receive health insurance benefits.
“Busing for me is a lot of fun,” he said. “I get to parent the kids and be a part of the village that raises them.”
On the other hand, the custodial work is physical in a more taxing way than his endurance training, and has been a strain for Lartigue as he battles issues with sciatica.
Since no candidates have come forward to fill the empty custodial positions, the school has gotten creative.
At an Oct. 12 school board meeting, trustees voted to implement a $1,700 stipend for teachers to clean their own spaces to relieve some of the pressure on custodial staff. The instructors had the option to accept the stipend and all certified teachers opted in.
“Everybody on staff is putting [all] hands on deck to say ‘Okay, I’ll be responsible for this area of the school and my classroom,’” Lartigue said.
Shipman said he got the idea from fellow Gallatin County school, Amsterdam School, which implemented the stipend after running into the same struggle to find custodial workers.
“The one thing I would like to recognize is that the teachers who chose to participate and clean spaces in the school are really doing it as a way of pitching in and helping out,” Shipman said. “We thank them for participating … for the betterment of the school district, which means the betterment of our student experience.”
Brad Packer, an LPHS math instructor for three years and a teacher for 26, outlined his cleaning responsibilities: vacuuming his classroom daily, taking out the trash, and disinfecting tables and desks.
“A lot of us were doing that room cleaning anyway because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
While the stipend is intended to ease pressure in the short term, Shipman said the goal is to allow teachers to focus on their students. Although unemployment is dropping in Montana and across the country, part of the difficulty in hiring custodial staff is the competition with other community employers.
Whereas a restaurant or property manager operates on a revenue model allowing them to raise prices in order to increase wages and make jobs more desirable, the school receives a fixed-dollar figure from the government per student and lacks the flexibility to raise wages to remain competitive, Shipman said.
The district currently pays its custodians $17.50 per hour plus additional benefits. The cleaning stipend being paid to teachers is costing the school the equivalent of two full-time custodial staff members.
Shipman pointed out that while the school can’t raise wages to compete with the market in this scope of work, they provide other benefits such as health insurance and state retirement pay.
But even with higher wages and good benefits, workers are still hard to come by.
Both McMinn and Lartigue agree that the district needs more custodial help, but neither could see a clear solution to the problem. McMinn summed up their current situation and the daily effort they both exert to keep the buildings clean.
“All we do at work is just what we can do.”