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COCC staffing difficulties reflect state-wide issues

Ellie Ocel/The Broadside

People who look closely might be able to notice something slightly off at COCC. The coffee shop might be closed, or a sidewalk not fully shoveled, or one virtual class filled with 40 people. This oddity is partially caused by COCC’s staffing shortage.

COCC currently has 143 employment opportunities posted on jobs.cocc.edu including faculty, staff, and part time positions. Other community colleges are also experiencing this staffing shortage.  

One of the main reasons employees are leaving their jobs at community colleges is the pay. Employees want to be paid more, but with community college enrollment levels down, the money to increase wages is difficult to find. 

According to Damon Runberg, state economist who covers Central Oregon, COCC’s employment decreased by 132 people, or 17.7%, from 2019 to 2021. 

This employment decrease is middle-of-the-pack compared to other community colleges. Some community colleges saw employment decrease by more than 24%, and others saw employment increase by more than 5%.

In addition, the quarterly average wage at COCC rose by 12.8% after adjusting for inflation. This change is on the low end compared to other community colleges. 

Runberg said that average wage often skews high. An increase in average wage does not necessarily mean every employee’s wage increased by that same amount. For example, the increase could mean that high earners received a pay raise or that low earners quit rather than that everyone’s pay increased.

“It is clear that COCC doesn’t look like an anomaly when compared to these other institutions. The trends are largely consistent,” said Runberg. The changes COCC is experiencing are broadly similar to those of other community colleges.

One department within COCC that has been affected by the staffing shortage is custodial services. Since before COVID-19, COCC has struggled to fill custodial services positions. 

COCC is trying to increase custodial services staffing, and applications for this position are open on a rolling basis. Despite these efforts, the custodial services department is still understaffed. 

Custodians are responsible for keeping the interior of buildings clean and safe. On snow days, they also help shovel stairs and walkways.

According to Alicia Moore, Interim Vice President of Campus Services, campus custodians are in each building less frequently because of this shortage, but they still keep up with a standard of cleanliness.

A custodian at COCC, who will remain anonymous for their safety, said that it is difficult to be a part of a department that is not fully staffed. The biggest challenge is keeping each building clean. 

“I don’t like to leave thinking I didn’t get everything done,” said the custodian. In addition, if each building is not cleaned in one day, the custodian would have even more work to get done the next day. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my job!” said the custodian. However, they can feel overworked, especially at the beginning of each new term. 

The custodian suggested a solution that could lead to an increase in custodial services staffing: raise the pay. At COCC’s current pay level, they would make more money working at a fast food restaurant than as a custodian.

Some faculty also suggest an increase in pay as a solution to the staffing shortage. Ben Taber, Adjunct Faculty of Chemistry and Engineering at COCC, said that low wages were the reason he decided not to renew his contract with COCC. 

Adjunct faculty at COCC teach half time and receive health insurance. For spring term, Taber will earn about $5,000 before taxes, which becomes about $1,100 per month after taxes. For the amount of time Taber spends working, that pay is equivalent to a $15-17 per hour wage. 

Taber also works at a bike shop, where his hourly wage is larger than $15-17 per hour. Until COCC’s wages increase, Taber fears that faculty and staff will continue to leave their jobs at COCC. 

“COCC will continue to see more people move towards the growing OSU-Cascades,” said Taber. 

Unfortunately, increasing employee wages is not as simple as it sounds. Dr. Laurie Chesley, COCC President, explained COCC’s budgeting process. 

COCC receives most of its funding from tuition, local property tax, and state and federal appropriations. Because COCC’s enrollment is lower than previous years, so too is the amount of money brought in by tuition. 

To increase employee wages, a complicated budgeting process must be followed. Dr. Chesley explained that this process includes budget requests in the fall and decision making in the winter and spring. The budget changes would then be enacted for the fiscal year, July 1 through June 30. 

“We need to pay our employees well,” said Dr. Chesley. “We also need to pay our insurance.” To try and balance priorities is one of the challenges of the budgeting process.

“There are always so many good things you could spend your money on,” Dr. Chesley said. 

Dr. Chesley also explained that employees have given many reasons for leaving COCC other than pay. Some reasons Dr. Chesley discussed for people leaving their job at COCC include retirement, moving out of Central Oregon, and being offered a position elsewhere with higher wages.

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