Fairbanks school district grapples with substitute worker shortage

Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- There's a labor shortage in Fairbanks -- at least for people willing to work part-time for the school district.

One week into the school year, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is grappling with a shortage of substitute workers. Officials say the local labor pool hasn't yielded enough substitute custodians, bus drivers and food service workers to fill the rosters every day.

Food service director Lynn Tompkins said he usually has 20 substitute food service workers. This year all are in permanent positions and he has no substitutes available for vacations and sick leave.

''They have actually had to pull secretaries out of the office,'' Tompkins said. ''Lunch has to go on, no matter what.''

Even Tompkins and his assistant have worked cash registers and served food at local schools, filling in when no substitutes were available.

The district's physical plant and busing contractor are grappling with a similar situation.

Physical plant director Dave Ferree said the shortage of custodians is the worst he has seen in 17 years.

The district employs about 145 custodians and usually has a dozen or more subs. As of Monday the district only had five substitute custodians.

''We handle it with overtime, and there are occasions where some of the areas are just getting a cursory cleaning one night and a thorough cleaning the other night,'' Ferree told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Tom Hyatt, Alaska district manager for Laidlaw Transit, said the company had to bring about 15 drivers up from Kodiak, Ketchikan and Anchorage to help staff the 135 routes in Fairbanks and North Pole.

Laidlaw has been able to get enough people to fill all the positions required in its contract, but just.

''It is a really tight labor market in Fairbanks,'' Hyatt said.

The earlier school year likely has something to do with the shortage, Hyatt added.

''We will traditionally get some folks that have summer jobs, either construction or fishing or things like that,'' he said. ''When we start school on the 20th of August, we don't have those folks.''

In a stab at a mutually beneficial recruiting tool, Laidlaw and the district food service department recently came up with a plan that would allow bus drivers to do their morning routes, work the lunch hour at schools, and then do their afternoon routes.

The plan has garnered minimal interest, Tompkins said. ''It hasn't worked out real well so far.''

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