Part three in a series
If Lorin Daigle is honest about it, she and her husband gave serious thought to leaving.
The certified nursing assistant has spent the past eight years with St. John’s Medical Center. She wanted to head back to school, earn her associate’s from Central Wyoming College-Jackson and start work as a registered nurse at St. John’s. She and her husband also wanted to buy a home.
They looked into affordable homes, but the only unit up for grabs went to someone else in the lottery. Daigle said the home really didn’t pencil well, anyway. Had they gotten it, they would be paying more for their mortgage than they had been paying in rent and not earning the return that comes with a market-rate home.
The two were at a crossroads. Daigle had been in Jackson Hole since 2007, and her husband had been here for over 25 years.
“We were certainly struggling with Jackson and what it had become,” she said. “We certainly thought Jackson is beautiful, and we like it and we’ve found great opportunity, but if we can’t find a place to live we’re not committed to being here.”
Though the hospital couldn’t solve the couple’s housing issues, the St. John’s Hospital Foundation came forward with another offer. As it had done when Daigle was looking to obtain her CNA certification, the foundation offered to pay Daigle’s tuition so she could earn her degree.
“Certainly we were struggling,” Daigle said. “Things fell in place with a home that we bought in Alpine, and then my program starting.”
While housing has become the primary focus for many local government agencies looking to retain employees, most recognize they cannot keep up with demand. Many have started to offer other benefits, provide continuing education or periodically boost base salaries to keep employees.
“When candidates declined us, we started to say, ‘Well, why?’ And it’s no surprise — it was housing cost,” said St. John’s Trustee Cynthia Hogan, who chairs the board’s human resources committee.
While housing remains a strong focus — the board of trustees recently paid $4.5 million for a 12-unit complex currently under construction at Kelly and Milward — the hospital has made a concerted effort to hire locally.
“What we learned too is if you want to hire, go to people who are already here,” Hogan said. “People want to work in Jackson because they want to play in Jackson. They come here, they love it and they’re looking for a job. So now, actually, that’s how our recruiting starts.”
Stay and learn
The mountains and the small-town lifestyle is what drew Sarah Graham to Jackson back in 2001. She’s originally from Phoenix, and she was searching for a place to escape multilane highways and city sprawl.
But the acupuncturist soon learned about the instability of the offseasons and how difficult it would be to make her practice work. She wanted a career in health care but also a job that offered a steady paycheck.
Having obtained a master’s degree in Oriental medicine from Southwest Acupuncture College, she had a lot of the prerequisites covered to apply to the nursing program at Central Wyoming College. But she wasn’t sure how to make the numbers work.
At the time she was renting and trying to stay ahead of bills. Going back to school and taking on student loan debt would likely force her out of the community she wanted to stay in.
“I just made the phone call to St. John’s and they were able to help me out,” Graham said.
In exchange for St. John’s Hospital Foundation paying for her tuition, Graham signed on to stay with the hospital for two years after she graduated. She completed her program in 2004, and has worked at the Living Center ever since. She moved up to the role of staffing nurse in 2008 and more recently into the position of interim nursing home administrator.
“They got their [return on investment],” she said with a laugh. “It was great to have the opportunity to not leave. If you’re renting you lose your stable renting. If you were trying to be in the [Jackson/Teton County Housing Authority] lottery you would lose your priority.”
The foundation’s scholarship program was overhauled in 2014 and no longer contains retainment clauses, St. John’s Hospital Foundation Vice President Jen Simon said.
Instead the foundation now requires that employees continue working at St. John’s while in school — though students can drop down to pool rotations, picking up shifts when available — and offers smaller scholarships to more people.
“What we’re really trying to cultivate is long-term, engaged employees,” Simon said.
Building more housing
The Teton County Board of County Commissioners knows more employee housing is needed for its staff. With only 10 units available to approximately 288 staffers, including the 62 full-time employees of the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, the board admits it is behind.
The most recent survey of county stock found Teton County government owns 16 units, though six are uninhabitable. The county also has four ownership options in phase two of the affordable housing project The Grove.
The town of Jackson employs 181 people and has 16 rental units and nine ownership opportunities.
Teton County and the town of Jackson elected officials have proposed two specific purpose excise tax projects that would create 45 government employee rental units. Should both measures pass in the May 2 SPET election, taxpayers will help build 21 units at a new Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation maintenance facility and 24 units at the START bus hub.
Still, it’s a small dent in what’s needed. According to the Jackson/Teton County Workforce Housing Action Plan, an additional 2,300 units are needed to hit the community goal of housing 65 percent of its workforce locally.
“You can’t buy your way out of the housing crisis,” Town and County Planning Director Tyler Sinclair said. “The private sector has to be a part of the solution.”
To engage the private sector the town has worked to bend land regulations to increase allowances for specific projects with clear community benefit, such as Hidden Hollow on North Cache Street or St. John’s employee housing project. Using the planned unit development tool the town has entered into cost-sharing agreements for infrastructure improvements, as was done with the West View Townhomes near the “Y” intersection.
Elected officials have also voted to publicly subsidize projects with cash injections and the purchase of land, most recently with the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust’s Redmond Street Rentals project.
In the past 12 months, the town has approved construction of 61 workforce, deed-restricted units for those working at 30 hours a week in Teton County, and 28 income-restricted units for those making less than 120 percent of the area median income.
The Teton County Library Foundation has also entered the housing market — albeit on a much smaller scale — leasing one unit to offer as a “landing pad” for new library staff, Foundation Executive Director Pauline Towers-Dykeman said. The board recently approved a 15-year lease of one of the 28 units of the Redmond Street Rentals project, bringing the county’s stock up to 12 rentals.
“It’s not as much as any of us would like, but it’s a start,” Towers-Dykeman said. “It’s something.”
The foundation and the library board recently convened a housing task force to look into other opportunities, including establishing a fund to assist employees with challenges like paying a deposit or covering moving expenses. While the details of how money will be disbursed is not yet clear, the foundation recently received a gift of $15,000 to start the fund. Towers-Dykeman expects the housing fund could come online as soon as July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
The hospital has taken a hard look at housing its own, forking over $20,000 to conduct a survey of its needs in 2015. Though the study found a high percentage of St. John’s workers live in Teton County — 70 percent of its employees live in the valley — it also found the demand for local housing persists. St. John’s would need upward of 150 units to meet the demands of its 650-plus person staff.
St. John’s owns 48 units of housing, though not all are used for employees. The 33-unit Hitching Post offers 12 cabins as long-term employee rentals but holds seven units for on-call staff and 14 for family and guests of patients. The hospital also owns approximately 15 other units, mostly spread around town, and the 12 units under construction are expected to be completed this fall.
Teton County School District No. 1 has a high percentage of employees housed in Teton County — roughly 72 percent — but housing continues to be a topic of conversation. District officials say they will plan to do a survey in the near future to more deeply understand employee housing needs.
“We need to know what the quality of the housing is,” Assistant Superintendent Jeff Daugherty said. “Are you sharing that housing with a lot of roommates? Is it a place where you can have your family? Is it a place you feel safe? Those sorts of things.”
The district’s current employee housing opportunities include 11 Schwabacher Meadows units in Wilson, a house in Indian Trails and a cabin behind Jackson Hole Middle School. It also owns land the district could “at some point” consider for housing projects, Daugherty said.
But with tight funding from the state, big changes probably shouldn’t be expected any time soon. A request to look further into the prospect of developing employee rentals on district lands at Davey Jackson Elementary and the middle and high schools in February was called “suboptimal” due to timing, funding constraints and a relative lack of demand from staff.
“We haven’t really analyzed whether any of that is appropriate for housing,” Daugherty said.
The soon-to-be-built Munger Mountain Elementary School may also have housing potential, but “it’s still too early to say,” said Charlotte Reynolds, the district’s information coordinator.
Two additional units of employee housing, however, are coming to fruition soon. Modular classrooms that were being used by the Jackson Hole Children’s Museum on the elementary school property will now be converted to housing.
Right pay, right hire
St. John’s Medical Center made salary adjustments in 2016, something Teton County government also did the year before.
But even with a 5 percent bump in 2015, achieving competitive salaries remains “very difficult to accomplish,” Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen said.
In an effort to fill vacancies and better mirror the community, Whalen wants to offer bonus pay to bilingual deputies — of which he currently has none.
St. John’s has found some success in cutting its turnover rate — once spiking at 20 percent annually, now down to 14 percent — and increasing retention by changing its recruitment practices.
Though the hospital has had a large backlog of open positions, some staying vacant for more than six months, and many new hires left within three months — a sign the hospital was not hiring the right people — it recently changed how and where it looked to recruit, Hogan said.
“Your best source of talent — talent who will stay — is employees, and employee families and friends,” Hogan said. “They’re going to only go to people they like. Also, they know the culture, so they can be very blunt.”
For employees who have already landed the hospital has worked hard to provide funding that allows staff to gain more education (and new career opportunities internally) without leaving the community. So far this fiscal year the scholarship fund has provided 11 students with scholarships up to $3,000 each.
Since Graham has been at the Living Center she said she has seen at least a dozen CNAs go through a nursing program and come back to St. John’s.
“We have a steady feed of staff, but also we’re giving people different opportunities,” Graham said. “It’s great for the community because a lot of times these are people who are established. A lot of people who are in school come from here, and it’s helping them get a career rather than bringing in somebody from out of state.”
Editors’ note: The effects of employee turnover are far-reaching and worrisome for many Teton County employers and families. We’ll explore additional effects in coming editions of the News&Guide.