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Tight labor market hinders hiring, retention for city of Rifle

Rifle Police Officer Kalob Foreman enters a patrol vehicle while on shift earlier this year.
Ray K. Erku/Citizen Telegram

Workforces thinning throughout this past year have made it harder for some city of Rifle departments to hire and retain employees, city officials said.

Right now Rifle is trying to fill three officer vacancies in the police department. Meanwhile, the parks and recreation department looks to rebound after this past summer saw just 76 of 110 seasonal positions filled at the Rifle Metro Pool.

Rifle City Manager and former police chief Tommy Klein said officers in the meantime have had to cover overtime shifts. The RPD employs 21 sworn-in officers when fully staffed.



“(Officers) may not be able to take a vacation when they’d like (because of the shortage),” Klein said.

The past five years have seen job applications to police departments plummet around the nation, and Rifle is no exception. When Klein took over as chief in 2017, the department would average about 12 applicants for every vacancy.



That number has since reduced to an average of six applicants per open position, Klein said.

“Sometimes we get six, sometimes we get 10,” he said. “I think the market is tight for all jobs, from truck drivers to construction workers, nurses, teachers. It’s not just police officers.”

But for a lack of police officers in particular, Klein agrees there is also a social explanation as to why — namely, news regarding instances of police brutality.

“The Western Slope is a wonderful place to be a police officer. We have a lot of support from our community here in Rifle, and that helps in terms of keeping up officers’ morale here,” Klein said. “But there’s a lot of news where some areas of the country are not as supportive, so it’s easy for a young person considering law enforcement to see that negativity.”

Greater demand for officers in a smaller cadet pool spanning across the nation has exacerbated the recruiting process, Klein said. Anyone inclined to enter law enforcement might look to the highest bidder.

In Rifle, starting pay for an officer without training is $57,330 a year. In Aspen, meanwhile, a rookie entering academy nabs anywhere between $53,206 to $61,193, according to a March application posting from the Aspen Police Department.

Before a candidate is hired, Rifle conducts a stringent application and training that spans months.

Klein said it typically takes nine to 10 months before an officer can ride solo in a squad vehicle and respond to 911 calls.

Trying to fill the vacancies as quickly as possible, the city continues to use police recruiting platforms, its web page, job search engines and social media to enhance the recruitment process.

“We’re doing more not only selling the position, but showing people that this is a cool place to live,” Klein said. “That’s part of the process we’re going through now.”

POOL PEOPLE NEEDED

This past summer saw lifeguards having to work double shifts. When no-one else was available, managers ran swim lessons.

Rifle Recreation Manager Austin Rickstrew said the parks and recreation department’s challenges in hiring more part-time and seasonal workers were caused in part by sports.

When Colorado high school sports were delayed due to COVID-19, regular seasons spilled into summer. This caused the seasonal workforce to shrink.

For the same reason, students were siphoned from the pool when this year’s fall sports seasons started earlier than expected.

“We put a lot of high school athletes to work at the pool,” Rickstrew said. “With the COVID seasons going into late June, early July, a lot of those kids couldn’t commit to a job when they were still playing sports.”

Filling in the blanks, one of the four full-time parks and recreation staffers picked up extra shifts lifeguarding and working concessions in addition to running swim lessons.

“I averaged probably 12-to-14 hours a day,” Rickstrew said.

This past season also saw the Rifle Metro Pool, which recently underwent an $8 million renovation, spend $219,670 on part-time, seasonal workers in the three months it usually operates.

Starting wages were set anywhere from $12.50 to $15 an hour depending on certifications and willingness to run swim lessons.

The seasonal worker budget for the pool is actually $257,000, Rickstrew said. With an eye toward 2022, the pool looks to raise starting wages to $12.75-$13.

“It’s hard to compete with fast food restaurants that are open year-round and can afford to pay $16 to $17 an hour for the base job,” Rickstrew said. “And then, we’re only open for three months, working on a limited budget.”

REASONS FOR DEPARTURE

Additional vacancies throughout the city include three full-time positions, Human Resources Manager Danielle Hogan said.

From Nov. 1-12, the parks and recreation department saw one full-time position open, while the city’s water and wastewater department saw two.

Upon their departure, Hogan said city officials ask for reasons why the employees left.

“Most of them actually moved out of the state for personal reasons. That’s something that’s out of our control,” Hogan said. “The second highest category of people leaving the city of Rifle is because their family got jobs in different locations.”

In response, the city actively seeks applicants and posts vacancies as quickly as possible, Hogan said.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, and some days you feel like, ‘Man, that’s a bunch of people leaving,’” Hogan said. “But I would say that as an organization, we actively continue to provide competitive wages and benefits and a place where employees want to come to work every day.”

Check out Friday’s Post Independent for a look at staffing levels for the city of Glenwood Springs.

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@citizentelegram.com.


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