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Hundreds of vacancies in San Diego’s parks and recreation department have slowed the city’s efforts to ramp up recreation center programs and pool hours and maintain city parks in the aftermath of pandemic-related shutdowns.
The city reported almost half of its pool guard positions were unfilled last month and that it had a 44 percent vacancy rate for hourly recreation center positions. At the same time, the city was short nearly three dozen grounds maintenance workers responsible for upkeep in parks and had an overall 14 percent vacancy rate for full-time department employees.
The worker shortages that have also hampered businesses and other governments have left the city with dramatically reduced pool hours, a 45 percent drop in recreation center programs compared with pre-COVID offerings and lingering issues in city parks.
“We are desperate for people to apply and to try us out as employer,” said Andy Field, who leads the city’s parks and recreation department.
Longstanding issues are likely adding to the city’s hiring and retention woes. A union leader whose organization represents dozens of parks and recreation workers said other cities are paying more for the same work, and some workers must pursue second jobs to make ends meet. And an advocate who leads the San Diego Parks Foundation said the city needs more funding for both city parks and personnel costs.
Field said the city is recruiting to fill the positions, including with a virtual job fair next week aimed at teens and young adults in southeastern San Diego.
“We want to reach out to the communities to find more people interested in this line of work so we can continue to have the programs and have the hours of operation the community expects to see,” Field said.
Just three of the city’s 13 pools – those in Clairemont, San Ysidro and University City – have weekend recreational swim hours as of this week. A dozen city pools had weekend swim hours in fall 2019, as reported by KPBS.
Recreation centers also have yet to resume all their pre-pandemic offerings, though an initiative backed by Mayor Todd Gloria, the county and organizations including the San Diego Parks Foundation helped bolster summer offerings in historically underserved neighborhoods over the summer. Field said it took the city all summer to reopen most of its nearly 60 recreation centers. It’s now trying to operate them with about half the staff it had before the pandemic.
Park maintenance seems to have suffered during the pandemic too.
Imani Robinson, chair of the Mountain View recreation council, decried the weeds that have emerged from the neighborhood park’s faded basketball courts and along its tennis court nets. She said a fence has been derailed alongside a nearby parking lot for months.
During the pandemic, Robinson said larger maintenance issues that have emerged have seemingly gone unaddressed by the city.
“They’re just doing the bare minimum,” Robinson said.
The city reports that it expects to break ground on a project to replace the two tennis courts and resurface the basketball courts early next year. Robinson said residents have long awaited those upgrades.
Former city parks and recreation employee Ricky Franchi, who now runs California Soccer League and serves on multiple recreation councils, said his group has stopped using fields outside the City Heights Recreation Center that his teams once regularly played on because they are no longer level.
“They haven’t worked on those fields,” Franchi said.
And Balboa Park advocate René Smith, who has for years urged the city to upgrade restrooms and other infrastructure in the iconic park, said he has noticed more graffiti and other issues in restrooms on the periphery of the park. He said the city looks to be struggling to complete the twice-daily cleanings it typically tries to provide in Balboa Park despite the best efforts of city workers.
“They sure don’t look like they’re able to do it,” Smith said.
Smith, who plays in a softball league with games throughout the county, said he has also noticed that restrooms at ballfields elsewhere in the region don’t have the same maintenance issues he sees in the city’s ballpark restrooms.
Field said the city is doing its best to keep up with park needs, including restroom cleaning, with the staff and resources it has. He acknowledged the city has grappled with increased demands to care for restrooms since a 2017 hepatitis A outbreak led to expanded bathroom hours that were not matched with increased resources in the city budget.
Leticia Munguia of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the city’s blue-collar workers, said parks and recreation employees work tirelessly to try to keep up, sometimes skipping breaks and downing shakes for lunch so they can continue working.
Munguia said the dynamics of COVID – and city staffing shortages – have left the workers who remain with more to do than ever. She said employees also often lack the supplies and autonomy to jump on maintenance issues that come up.
“You have the highest need with the lowest city staffing,” Munguia said.
Field said the parks and recreation department has seen “kind of a perfect storm” with vacancies that began with a hiring freeze for most city jobs that began before the pandemic.
Then, Field said, the pandemic forced the city to shut down recreation centers and pools. Some city employees also left the workforce or took other jobs – including with other local governments – as the crisis dragged on.
Field said he doesn’t anticipate the city’s vaccine mandate, with an approaching Dec. 1 deadline, adding to the city’s hiring challenges.
The bigger concern, Field said, is ensuring that would-be employees consider the city a safe place to work – and that the community is aware the city has dozens of entry-level job openings that could become careers.
Those entry-level jobs don’t come with hefty paychecks.
Many of the parks and recreation department’s vacant hourly positions pay between just over minimum wage to just under $18.50 an hour for part-time work while the full-time grounds maintenance positions, for example, now pay between $35,235 and just under $42,000 a year.
To put those amounts in perspective, the University of Washington’s Center for Women’s Welfare – which calculates annual self-sufficiency standards for communities across the nation – found that a single adult needs to make at least $18.43 an hour in a full-time gig or $38,919 annually to make ends meet in San Diego County without public assistance in 2021. Wages required to be considered self-sufficient only increase for families with children.
Daniel Enemark, senior economist at the San Diego Workforce Partnership, said the competitive job market and increases in inflation are making job hunters more discerning.
“There’s a real desire among people, even people who are working, to be able to find the best available job out there,” Enemark said.
That includes young adults and teens seeking part-time jobs who may be lured by bolstered incentives and wages offered by other potential employers.
City leaders have signed off on raises for parks and recreation employees in response to longstanding concerns about city employee turnover and wages that lag behind other communities.
AFSCME Local 127’s latest agreement with the city calls for grounds maintenance workers to receive a 5 percent pay bump in January. Both Local 127 employees and white-collar workers represented by the Municipal Employees Association, which also represents some parks and recreation employees, received 4 percent across the board raises this past July and are set to receive additional increases next July.
Munguia said the latest raises are appreciated but more are needed.
“We have folks who work a grounds maintenance worker job who have to go and work another job after they finish our job to go and make ends meet,” she said.
Katherine Johnston, executive director of the San Diego Parks Foundation, said she has heard of recent instances of parks and recreation staffers leaving for jobs in other cities with the expectation that they’ll make more money, face fewer demands, and have more resources to do their jobs.
“I think staff is doing a tremendous job with the resources we have available, but I think we need to pay park and rec employees a more competitive wage,” Johnston said.
The foundation Johnston leads has teamed with the San Diego Public Library Foundation to explore a possible 2022 tax measure to fund park and library services.
Johnston said there will be an announcement soon on the potential measure’s next steps.
Johnston said the park’s recent staffing challenges – along with a recent analysis that recommended nearly $213 million in various fixes and upgrades in city parks – underscore the challenges facing the city’s park system. An independent budget analyst’s office report released last week also highlighted the lack of dedicated funding to support parks in areas defined as communities of concern in the city’s parks master plan – and voter-approved measures other major cities in the state have used to address park needs.
Johnston, who once advised former Mayor Kevin Faulconer on park and infrastructure issues, said she believes the city is struggling to meet residents’ expectations because it’s struggling with shortages of both staffing and operating funds to support park maintenance.
Johnston said she and her toddler have seen the evidence at a seemingly unlikely spot: a La Jolla Recreation Center playground, where two of three play tunnels have been out of commission for nearly a year.
“In order to provide the type of world-class park system that we all desire, additional revenue is required,” Johnston said.