Waitlists, staff burnout, worker shortages — afterschool programs in the Garden State are no stranger to the labor issues that have been roiling the economy for much of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a survey conducted in New Jersey and elsewhere for the Afterschool Alliance, more than 50% of afterschool program providers report that they are extremely concerned about finding staff or staffing shortages. More than 80% fear they may not have the ability to maintain staff during health concerns, and many are forced to increase costs for parents in order to make things work.

"We had a mass exodus of staff that were just not coming back," Diane Genco, executive director of the New Jersey School-Age Care Coalition, said of the start of the COVID-19 emergency in 2020.

To be employed by an afterschool program, which provides learning and physical programming to children after the final school bell, one must undergo a rigorous background check and hours of training — all for part-time work, Genco said. Also working against the industry, she said, are the safety concerns surrounding schools and childcare settings.

"People are still very anxious, I think, about working with kids because of COVID," Genco said. "They'd rather deliver Amazon packages out of their car, and that pays better."

Most afterschool providers in New Jersey get their revenue directly from parent-paid tuition, Genco noted. So if providers choose to raise the salary of staff, the added expense is likely to come out of the pockets of parents.

In the Afterschool Alliance survey, which was conducted between Nov. 1 and Dec. 13, 71% of programs said they had taken action to attract and/or retain staff. The most common action was raising salaries. Providers also increased opportunities for professional development, offered free childcare, instituted signing bonuses, or offered additional paid time off.

More than 50% of providers reported having waiting lists, compared to 37% last spring.

"These new findings are sobering, especially since we know omicron has increased staffing problems since this survey was conducted," said Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant. "While many programs report using federal COVID relief funds to support staff recruitment and retention, those funds are likely to end long before the afterschool staffing crisis does."

Genco said employee bonuses via federal relief funds — $1,000 for staying employed, for example — are incentivizing individuals to join the afterschool ranks. Individuals also are exhausting their unemployment benefits.

"That's been helpful, but we still don't have the workforce we need," Genco said. "The workforce — it's a revolving door."

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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