- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Seasonal workers who mow lawns, scrub toilets and answer phones at Nebraska’s state parks can now command a higher salary, thanks to the state’s $9-an-hour minimum wage.

State government is exempt from the minimum wage requirement, but officials with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission say the increase has forced them to offer more money to compete with higher-paying private sector jobs.

Nebraska hires about 900 temporary and seasonal employees each year to work in parks, mostly during the peak spring and summer months.

Without them, commission officials say it would be nearly impossible to handle the dozens of jobs that are required to run a state park - everything from guiding tourists to wrangling horses. Some parks rely on temporary staff around the clock to answer late-night maintenance calls from guest cabins.

“They’re really critical to the work we do,” said Tim McCoy, the commission’s deputy director. “We want to make sure we’re recruiting and hiring good, qualified personnel, and this is a way for us to do that.”

Facing pressure to raise wages, the commission is asking Nebraska lawmakers for the authority to draw nearly $407,000 a year from an existing cash fund to cover the cost. The request was included in the budget proposal Gov. Pete Ricketts presented to lawmakers last week.

Nebraska’s minimum wage topped out at $9 an hour last year thanks to a ballot measure approved by voters in 2014. It’s now higher than the rates of all its neighboring states, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Another challenge for the parks is the state’s low unemployment rate, which gives workers more options when job hunting, said Jim Swenson, the commission’s parks administrator. Motels and restaurants frequently try to hire the same people.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services faces similar problems. Despite a campaign to hire more workers in the short-staffed prison system, many of the jobs have remained vacant. Director Scott Frakes has said part of the department’s challenge stems from the state’s strong economy and low unemployment rate.

Recruiting is even harder in rural areas, where employees may have to drive long distances to work. Swenson said the commission increased its outreach last year with a marketing and promotional campaign to advertise the jobs, and has already raised some wages.

“We need to stay competitive,” Swenson said. “We offer great opportunities, but we also recognize that the cost of living for everyone has gone up.”

The starting wage for an entry-level parks worker is roughly $7.50 an hour, according to the commission’s budget’s request. Workers with more experience receive $9 an hour. Giving parks staff the authority to spend more would help the agency offer “a reasonably attractive wage,” the commission said in its request.

A seasonal parks job was a perfect fit for Pat Federle, a clerk who balances the books, sells fishing and hunting licenses and answers the phone at Fort Robinson State Park near Crawford. The park in northwest Nebraska offers cabins, stagecoach rides, kayak rentals and a full-service restaurant, all with help from temporary employees.

Federle said the park gave her flexibility after she left her full-time teaching job to care for her mother, who was suffering from dementia. She said she loves the job and her co-workers, but acknowledged the park struggled to fill some positions about a year ago, around the time the minimum wage rose to $9 an hour.

“You had a lot of people who were really scrambling to make sure our guests’ needs were met,” she said.

Federle said many of the seasonal workers are teachers who are looking for summer work and college and high school students.

Chadron State Park relies so heavily on seasonal workers that the park’s superintendent and assistant superintendent must clean cabins themselves when the employees are off, said Rhonda Case, an office clerk for the park, All of the park’s maintenance, cleaning and lawn-care staff are temporary workers.

Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee have said they’ll look closely at all budget requests. The Game and Parks Commission’s request would not directly affect the state’s general fund.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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