Second in a series
When winter weather closed Teton Pass in mid-February, teachers Kendle and John Hoogestraat were in Wyoming — but their infant daughter was in Idaho.
The couple are just two of hundreds of people living in Idaho but working in Teton County who illustrate the widespread effects of high turnover and the difficulty of retaining employees that many public and private organizations in the valley face.
“The whole commuting thing wasn’t really ever a big deal until we had a daughter, so that’s changed a lot, especially after the winter we’ve had,” John Hoogestraat said. “We don’t want to teach in a district she’s not going to, so when she becomes of school age that is a change that is going to have to happen.”
Teacher Kate Hudacsko’s incoming kindergartner won’t be a student in the same school district where his mom works. They will be separated by a mountain pass.
“People say that’s ridiculous,” Hudacsko said. “Well, not really. That’s the rules. It’s taken me a while to be OK with that.”
Even if families can afford to live in the area, it involves compromise, and lots of it. That compromise can impact community members’ access not only to teachers, but also emergency responders, law enforcement and doctors.
After a doozy of a winter locals are well aware of the impact of having a fractured workforce.
“From an emergency planning standpoint when we’re looking at plans for the community this issue comes up,” Teton County Emergency Management coordinator Rich Ochs said. “When I tell my counterparts in other areas of the state that many of our first responders don’t live here, it’s a foreign concept.”
Jackson Hole Fire/EMS is an exception due to its residency requirement.
“They have to live within a certain response time,” Ochs said.
But Ochs believes the fire department will eventually share the same challenges.
“As we keep heading down whatever road we’re heading down,” Ochs said, “are we going to be able to get the volunteers we need to staff the station?”
Interim Fire Chief Mike Moyer said the department has had volunteers lose their housing in Jackson and move to Idaho, meaning they can no longer work for Jackson Hole Fire/EMS.
Young people are priced out
“We aren’t able to have volunteers live outside the valley,” Moyer said. “It certainly is challenging. We have difficulty keeping an adequate number of volunteers at our West Bank stations.”
Teton County Emergency Management is a three-person department, including Ochs. It operates from the Emergency Operations Center south of town. During a natural disaster many agencies work from its office, so the building is equipped with sleeping quarters and military-style “meals ready to eat.”
“We have MREs and cots here at the EOC,” he said. “During wildfires and stuff we have people sleeping in the office.” The center doesn’t have shower facilities, but a nearby fire station does, Ochs said.
St. John’s Medical Center secured 33 units of housing — the Hitching Post — across from the hospital in 2001, providing a place for staff to crash should roads be closed or when double shifts are needed, like during the early February storm.
About 83 percent of St. John’s employees rent in Teton County. Fifty-seven percent of employees who own have homes in the county — generally a higher number than other agencies. But that housing security has much to do with the tenure of its employees, according to a 2015 Housing Needs Assessment commissioned by St. John’s.
“If you look at people across Teton County 45 or over, they have housing because they came here early enough when housing was not an issue,” said St. John’s Trustee Cynthia Hogan, who heads the board’s human resources committee.
“As they retire, say over the next 10 to 15 years, the people who are younger who are coming in who will then be moving up are coming into a new situation where there’s much less access to housing, and they’re coming in often with heavy student loan debts,” Hogan said. “That’s making it even harder for them to afford a mortgage. We’re facing the fact that we’re going to have to get housing to keep them.”
Teton County government expects the same challenge, Director of Human Resources Julianne Fries said, as baby boomers with secure housing retire and leave hard-to-fill positions open.
“The reason people gravitate to the government is its job security and benefits,” Fries said. “That government model of tenure-based job security, that model is attractive to a certain demographic. If we look at our current demographic we have about 45 percent of our population that is in the baby boomer area, and they’re going to be retiring.
“Right now 45 percent of our demographics is also the millennials. … How are we going to appeal to that demographic? I don’t think traditional government benefits and job security really is of value for that demographic.”
Other first responders face similar challenges.
“Right now you’re sitting with the majority of the department who lives in the county,” Teton County Sheriff’s Lt. Matt Carr said jokingly during a recent interview with him and Sgt. Lloyd Funk. Deputies, dispatchers and jail staff, who aren’t supposed to work more than 16 hours at a time, end up working around the clock when their colleagues who live over Teton Pass or in Star Valley can’t make it to work.
There are 26 START employees, mostly bus drivers, who live outside Teton County. Public works has 10 employees who commute. To ensure buses and plows have enough drivers the two departments shuffled employees around during major storms this winter, making supervisors drive buses and mechanics operate plows.
When the passes closed, several START and public works employees slept in their cars after working double, even triple, shifts to pick up the slack and make sure the town’s roads were clear and public transportation maintained some sort of schedule.
Should the specific purpose excise tax proposals for public housing at the START and Teton County Parks and Recreation facilities pass, directors Darren Brugmann and Steve Ashworth hope to house more employees in Teton County, or at the least have a bed for them to crash in when routes in and out of town close.
When town schools closed once this winter, road conditions played a larger role than staffing. Almost 73 percent of school district employees live in Teton County — bus drivers having difficulty getting to the bus barn and starting transportation on time was the major reason schools were delayed.
Split in two
Hudacsko started teaching kindergarten full time in the spring of 2004, when a lot of elementary school positions opened due to a large number of retirees. In 2006 Hudacsko and her husband started to reconsider the rent they paid to live in Jackson.
“Even back then we knew we needed to do something about it,” she said. “Even though I was making a good amount of money, I hadn’t been able to bank a lot of it.”
Like so many others in their shoes Hudacsko and her family decided on Idaho. But in 2008 their plans to live on that side temporarily were shaken by the housing crisis. They used to look at properties in town a lot, but now they can’t really consider moving back to Jackson.
“It pinned us, and we couldn’t sell,” Hudacsko said. “My house got turned upside down in terms of value. We kind of got screwed.”
Now she and her husband, who started the trash and recycling company RAD, have roots in Victor, Idaho, and her brother and sister-in-law live right down the street.
Hudacsko said living in Idaho but teaching in Wyoming can sometimes be “contentious.”
“I can’t afford to work in Idaho,” Hudacsko said, pointing to generous benefits Teton County School District offers that cover her entire family as well as other incentives. “Idaho and Wyoming’s priorities and how they value their education systems are very different.”
John Hoogestraat, who has taught in Wyoming and Idaho, agreed.
“We just hope that continues because all those things keep us here,” John said. “If they go away, what is the incentive to teach on this side?”
His wife, Kendle, had similar thoughts about choosing to teach in Wyoming.
“It’s a good environment to teach in,” she said. “The class sizes currently are really low compared to Idaho, the opportunities for professional development are a lot higher and there is much more technology.”
John called the gap in pay between states “kind of crazy” because “it’s pretty much the exact same job, and that’s pretty silly.”
But being paid more doesn’t necessarily make up for the cost of living in Teton County.
“With the way the housing market has moved, how much do you really have to make to buy a home you want to live in?” John Hoogestraat asked. He and Kendle, like many families, want room for a dog and a yard. Even if they did find something in Jackson, he said they’d be choosing between “a mortgage that is too much for us or a commute.”
Plus, the drive isn’t that bad in other seasons. It’s really just winter that hits commuters hard.
“People come from out of town and they’re amazed that we drive that every day,” John Hoogestraat said. “And when we’re in deadlock traffic on a snowy mountain road we sometimes ask why we’re doing this.”
Luckily the Hoogestraats had family visiting during the storm cycle that separated them from their daughter. But when they managed to make it back to Idaho the canyons closed — preventing them from coming back to work for the remainder of the week.
“When I didn’t have a kid I didn’t care if I stayed over here or went home,” Kendle said. “But now it’s a much bigger deal when things like that happen. I just wanted to get home to see her.”
Police Chief Todd Smith, who has commuted to Jackson for 16 years, first from Star Valley and now Bondurant, said he is lucky to spend two hours a day with his family.
“We work 12-hour shifts,” he said. “With a hour commute each way and eight hours of sleep, that leaves only two hours to be with my family, and there are a lot of variables that can make that even less. It definitely puts stress on relationships.”
Furthermore, the long “white-knuckle” drives through snowstorms in the dead of night add even more stress to the chief’s daily life.
“You’re putting yourself in danger on almost a daily basis,” he said. “I have a couple extra gray hairs because of that drive.”
Though he first moved out of Jackson to save money on rent, he believes much of that is lost in gas and car maintenance. Living an hour away also prevents him from taking advantage of overtime hours, further negating the financial benefits of living in Bondurant.
Difficult to build a community
It’s hard to build a community for yourself and your family when you don’t live where you work.
“I certainly feel bounced between two communities, and I don’t like that aspect of it,” Kendle Hoogestraat said. “It’s not easy. It’s actually kind of hard.”
It always comes back to housing.
“It would be nice to have more of an incentive,” Teton County sheriff’s Sgt. Lloyd Funk said. “Not for us old guys but for when we hire new people, just to get them to stay.”
Fries sees the same issue when recruiting for county positions, especially ones that call for a skilled professional who typically comes with a family.
“It’s really hard to relocate here,” Fries said. “The hardest thing is landing and getting a house that you feel comfortable living in. What you’re usually seeing is units that are outdated, not remodeled, they’re green shag carpets … and that’s what you’ve got for $2,000 a month rent. That’s not easy to recruit a professional to — with a family.”
The hospital’s housing needs assessment found 175 households of 356 surveyed feel finding affordable housing that meets their needs is “very difficult.” Thirty households indicated they have yet to find such housing. About a third of the staff have sought homes over Teton Pass or south down the canyon.
While the study found “employees are satisfied with both the work environment and the workload” — despite both being the primary reasons for nurses quitting their jobs — St. John’s employees identified their frustration as “the cost of living in the area and in particular the cost of housing.” Upwards of 31 percent of those surveyed indicated they are considering leaving because of this issue.
Living in employee housing isn’t a foolproof option. If apartments are available they’re often shared with other people or big enough only for one person. School district employees don’t own Schwabacher Meadows units outright — so the property can’t serve as an asset the way a house in Idaho does.
On the flip side, having an asset in Idaho puts Hudacsko at the “bottom of the list” to get into employee housing. She’d likely have to sell her house, play the rental game in Jackson and cross her fingers.
With two teacher salaries the Hoogestraats are in a higher income bracket — also making qualifying for employee housing a tough bet.
With these hassles, why stay?
Teachers say the education community here is rich, and it’s partially what encourages them to remain.
“The staff here and the climate here are a huge part of what keeps us here,” Hudacsko said. “They’re my family. They’ve seen me grow up. If you want to make it work, you can, but people have to get real creative about how they figure it out.”
John Hoogestraat pointed out that having kids and supporting a family contributes to a sense of community in Jackson, but when working professionals with families get priced out, it changes the character of the community.
“The people who can stay are the mega-rich and the people that come and go,” John said. “It makes it interesting. Because if you lose that middle piece, it gets a little funky.”
For Chief Smith living outside the community he is sworn to serve and protect can at times make him feel like a hired gun.
“I could afford to be alive in Jackson,” Chief Smith said. “But at my age you want to feel like you’ve accomplished more than sharing three of your walls, — it’s the American Dream. But if you do it long enough it just becomes part of your life, and you start to question your connection to the town you serve.”
Editor’s note: The effects of employee turnover are far-reaching and worrisome for many Teton County employees and families. We’ll explore solutions and hope for the future in coming editions of the News&Guide.