Housing, staffing both a struggle for social service providers

JACKSON — Jackson Hole’s cost of living is putting up a roadblock for Teton County nonprofits that provide senior care, shelter for teens in crisis and subsidized mental health care, among other services.

“Our budget is ... almost entirely salaries and benefits,” Patti Boyd, executive director of the Children’s Learning Center, told the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners during a day of budget meetings Thursday. “When we can’t keep up with even the hourly rate that places like our new grocery store or our upcoming REI store can offer people, we’re in danger of losing really good people.”

Referring to the Whole Foods take over of Jackson Whole Grocer, Boyd was not alone in worrying about retaining staff. The nonprofit Children’s Learning Center provides child care for local families.

Around 15 social service-oriented nonprofits spoke Thursday with town councilors and county commissioners to make their annual requests for town and county funding. During the conversation, the 10 or so members of the Human Service Council, a group of the largest providers of social services in Jackson Hole, largely expressed concern about retaining staff. Leaders of other, smaller service-oriented nonprofits shared similar concerns.

“We’re all desperately searching for staff,” said Sarah Cavallaro, executive director of Teton Youth and Family Services, a nonprofit that serves as a clearing house for struggling children and teens in Teton County and the surrounding area. Cavallaro also organizes the Human Service Council. “The primary reason we can’t find them is housing.”

She and some others said their organizations tend to pay people in entry level positions around $15 or $16 an hour. That’s a difficult proposition in Jackson Hole, where the cost of renting a two-bedroom, unfurnished apartment averages $2,472, not including utilities, according to a report from the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division.

Officials generally say that people should pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. A $15-per-hour wage amounts to roughly $2,400 a month before taxes. Paying $1,200 in rent eats about half of that.

Carolyn Worth, executive director of Community Entry Services, which supports adults with disabilities, said she has been having trouble getting people to bite on the wage she’s able to offer, even with what she described as a “great benefits package.” She said she has had an advertisement in the paper for six weeks.

“I’ve had one application,” she said. “I have a lot of inquiries, but when I send out a job description saying that we pay $15 an hour, I instantly get an email back saying that’s not a livable wage. There’s interest, but I can’t hire people.”

“We’re accessing hundreds of medications a day, we’re helping our clients get dressed, shower, eat,” she said. “When we don’t have a staff to do that, it’s affecting our clients’ quality of life.”

Deidre Ashley, executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, told elected officials that the industry’s shift to remote care has caused her to lose providers to private practices. Hiring people to fill their shoes has been challenging.

“We’ll find somebody who might be interested in moving to Jackson, but then they look at some of the housing costs and commuting and those kinds of issues,” Ashley said. “And so we’ve been slow to hire.”

Typically the Counseling Center doesn’t have a long waitlist, Ashley said, but the staffing difficulties are causing its waitlist to build.

Boyd at the Children’s Learning Center — an organization that does typically deal with long waitlists because childcare, like housing, is also in short supply here — said she has over 200 people waiting for a spot to open up. But she, like the other nonprofit directors, is having trouble hiring people.

“I don’t see any way that we are going to be able to afford to make the kind of increases even over time that will keep the best people working with our children,” Boyd said. “That keeps me up at night.”