Milwaukee’s Summer Services Are Limited Thanks to County Staffing Shortages

Food service concessions and popular attractions like the zoo’s zip line are cutting hours or temporarily closing for lack of employees

It wasn’t just the fireworks.

Staffing shortages are forcing cutbacks across a broad array of Milwaukee County’s recreational and transit services as the county tries to resume normal operations this summer, after easing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, officials say.

Three major cuts recently grabbed public attention: The cancellation of the July 3 lakefront fireworks; the elimination of lifeguard coverage at county beaches and temporary closure of some county swimming pools; and the Milwaukee County Transit System’s decision not to run special routes to Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair, Irish Fest and Mexican Fiesta.

Photo by Visit Milwaukee

But similar worker shortfalls are affecting many lower-profile services at the Milwaukee County Zoo, county parks and the bus system, officials say. Among them:

  • The zoo’s Sky Adventure Rope Course & Zip Line are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays instead of being open every day this summer, Interim Zoo Director Vera Westphal says. The Safari Train and the Carousel shut down periodically if the zoo doesn’t have enough staff to run them, Westphal says.
  • Nourish 414 (formerly Lakeview Place), the zoo’s second-largest foodservice operation, is closed this summer, while Wildburger (formerly the Woodland Grill) is only open consistently on weekends, says Stephanie Gray, local general manager for SSA Group, which runs the zoo’s concessions. The Flamingo Cafe remains open every day, but service at the zoo’s smaller food outlets and weekday hours at Wildburger fluctuate depending on staffing, with only about half of all 18 food service locations open on any given day. “It’s a game-day decision for us every day,” Gray says.
  • Snack concession stands are closed this summer at Schulz Aquatic Center in Lincoln Park and the Sheridan Park Pool in Cudahy, leaving Cool Waters Aquatic Park in Greenfield Park as the only county pool that is both open and has food service, says Jeremy Lucas, county parks director of administration and planning.
  • The South Shore Terrace beer garden in South Shore Park is closed on Mondays, although other permanent and traveling beer gardens in county parks are still operating on their normal schedules, Lucas says.
  • Some regular county bus routes have canceled some trips – representing slightly less than one-half of 1 percent of regularly scheduled service – for lack of drivers, according to Kristina Hoffman, transit system director of marketing and communications. Special service to Milwaukee Brewers home games at American Family Field is still running.
  • Routine parks maintenance services, such as cutting grass, trimming trees and emptying garbage cans, are becoming less frequent, Lucas says.

Dozens of vacancies, largely in seasonal positions, are triggering the service cuts.

 

 

The parks are short about 150 seasonal workers, including 110 to 130 lifeguards, compared with pre-pandemic levels of about 820 seasonal workers, including 200 lifeguards, in 2019, Lucas says. At least 16 of the parks’ 254 year-round positions are also vacant, he says.

At the zoo, SSA has 40 to 60 vacancies among the 150 to 200 seasonal jobs it typically fills to staff food service concessions, gift shops and warehouses, Gray says. Among county employees, the zoo is short 20 of its usual 100 seasonal workers, Westphal says.

Photo by Visit Milwaukee

The transit system, meanwhile, is short about 60 of its budgeted total of 774 drivers, Hoffman says.

Some of the staffing issues are tied to national factors that have affected other public agencies and private-sector employers as well. For example, other zoos and transit systems across the country are facing similar personnel shortfalls, say Westphal, Gray and Hoffman.

Wisconsin State Parks are also having trouble filling temporary positions, although not as much as some private-sector service industry employers, says Sarah Hoye, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Photo by Getty Images

That has resulted in service reductions – but no park closures – in prime tourist spots outside the Milwaukee area, including parks in Door County and Sauk County (home to Wisconsin Dells), and the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, up north in Vilas, Oneida and Iron counties, she says.

But it’s not universal. Waukesha County parks and other agencies are almost fully staffed, with no disruptions in service, County Executive Paul Farrow says. Milwaukee city departments have reported some staffing shortages, but not enough to threaten service delivery, say Makda Fessahaye, city director of employee relations, and Brian DeNeve, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. Private contractor TransDev also has kept The Hop streetcar staffed, DeNeve says.

Here are what officials see as the causes of – and possible solutions to – the worker shortfalls:

PANDEMIC PAUSE:

MANY MILWAUKEE COUNTY seasonal workers count on coming back every summer, say Lucas, Westphal and Gray. But after the pandemic struck, the county closed or reduced services for its parks system and zoo, cutting sharply into seasonal hiring last summer.

In 2020, the parks hired only 200 seasonal employees – about a quarter of the usual number – focusing on revenue-generating services like golf courses and marinas instead of lifeguards and groundskeepers, Lucas says. That forced year-round employees to pitch in. “We had accountants, landscape architects and graphic designers cutting grass last year,” Lucas says.

SSA and the zoo also cut back on seasonal hiring last year, Gray and Westphal say. As a result, many seasonal employees found other jobs and decided not to come back this year, say Lucas, Westphal and Gray.

That’s a key difference between Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. Waukesha County kept its parks fully open last year and didn’t have the same interruption in seasonal employment, Farrow says.

The pandemic also disrupted recruiting and hiring efforts that ordinarily would have taken place last year, say Hoffman and Gray. And at SSA as well as many private-sector restaurants, some food service employees who faced layoffs and increased stress last year decided to change careers, Gray says.

In response, the parks, zoo, SSA and the transit system are stepping up their recruiting efforts with more advertising and job fairs, officials say.

WAGES:

WITH SO MANY private- and public-sector employers struggling to ramp up hiring, “the hiring market today is leaning heavily in favor of employees/job seekers,” pushing up wages and hiring bonuses, Hoffman says.

To better compete for workers, SSA has raised its starting wages for seasonal employees, while the transit system is offering hiring bonuses for new drivers and referral bonuses for current employees who help find new hires, Gray and Hoffman say.

But SSA, as a private contractor, and the transit system, managed by a nonprofit corporation, have more flexibility than the county has with its direct employees.

Lucas says the parks are sharply constrained by civil-service pay scales that start as low as $8 an hour for seasonal workers, and that can be changed only by County Board action. Supervisors have discussed raising lifeguard pay, but they haven’t introduced a measure to do that, and no pay raise could take effect quickly enough to hire and train lifeguards for this season, he says.

Seasonal workers are exempt from the county’s living wage ordinance, which requires county agencies to pay year-round employees at least $15 an hour. At Mayor Tom Barrett’s urging, the Milwaukee Common Council recently approved a similar requirement for both year-round and seasonal city employees, effective in September.

Although the $15-an-hour minimum wage is expected to help city agencies hire and keep employees, it’s mainly “meant to simply do the right thing” for city workers, Fessahaye says. “The City of Milwaukee has supported and encouraged local businesses to pay a living wage, and we want to ensure we’re not only talking the talk but walking the walk.”

JOBLESS PAY:

FARROW, a former Republican state legislator, says restaurant owners in his largely conservative county tell him that they believe their staffing problems are tied to the federally funded $300-a-week increase in unemployment benefits.

Congress approved the increase as jobless rates soared during the pandemic. That raised the maximum unemployment benefit in Wisconsin from $370 to $670 a week until Labor Day.

Republicans and business groups argue that the benefit level has become an incentive for employees not to return to work. Democrats and many economists say other factors are involved, including lack of child care and continuing concerns about the coronavirus.

In Wisconsin, the GOP-led Legislature passed a bill last month to end the increased benefits immediately, following the lead of more than two dozen other states. They were backed by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, and Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation.

But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the measure, saying proponents lacked evidence to prove the higher benefits were causing the worker shortage. Many Wisconsin businesses had trouble finding workers before the pandemic as well, he noted.

Whatever the cause, local officials know that cutting service disappoints customers.

“Any amount of MCTS service that goes unfilled – even when it’s a small fraction of a percent – is too much, because it means dozens or even hundreds of passengers who rely on our services could be inconvenienced on a daily basis,” Hoffman says.

At the zoo, “we are doing the best we can,” Gray says of SSA. “We just need more people.”

Photo by Visit Milwaukee

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.