Staff shortage could cause temporary arena closures in North Huron
BY DENNY SCOTT
North Huron Township doesn’t have the necessary staff to operate two arenas this year, meaning that, if more staff can’t be found, both arenas may not be able to open.
During North Huron Council’s Sept. 20 meeting, Director of Recreation and Facilities Vicky Luttenberger said the municipality is facing a dire situation.
“We’re at a critical level for staffing,” she said. “We don’t have enough staff to run both Blyth and Wingham facilities.”
Luttenberger said that previously-approved recruitment initiatives had proven unsuccessful. She said that two positions were advertised in August: a full-time seasonal position and a part-time position. She said eight applicants expressed interest in the part-time position and one for the full-time, but the only qualified applicant withdrew their interest.
She said she had attempted to find other solutions, but the need for certified employees who could operate the arena’s facilities, deal with emergency situations and handle equipment failures couldn’t be found.
She said the major issue was the hours of operation for the facilities, which can operate 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. On top of that, COVID-19 requirements were resulting in more staff hours necessary for cleaning and disinfecting spaces and surfaces, with the added need of checking vaccination status for those entering the arena.
Luttenberger said she wanted to try one more solution: hiring a full-time recreational operator in Wingham and increasing a current part-time operator’s hours to full-time in Blyth.
She said that, thanks to the arenas being closed earlier in the year, the financial impact from the changes would be absorbed in the budget, but in 2022, there would be a noticeable difference.
Finding these staff members is important, she said, because her department is going to see seven staff eligible for retirement in the coming years, with two people already expressing interest in retiring next year.
Councillor Kevin Falconer asked if the vaccination checks couldn’t be the responsibility of the users, however Luttenberger was leary of that because, as the owner of the facility, North Huron would be liable if an unvaccinated individual was found on premise, not the renters of the ice surface.
Falconer also suggested creating a full-time position in WIngham that would see a staff member work in the pool during its busy season and in the arena the rest of the year, however Luttenberger said the certifications for those positions were different.
Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip said the problem was that “workers are in the driver’s seat” in the current economic climate and North Huron needs to make the positions attractive. He also said that any discussion about closing either arena would likely result in a negative backlash from the impacted communities.
While Reeve Bernie Bailey agreed with Seip, he said staffing dictated this, not a desire to close a facility.
“We don’t want to find out we’re operating anything illegally,” he said, adding that could lead to a lawsuit. “I agree with Trevor - we don’t want to open the can of worms [of shutting down the arena] or cancelling hockey, but it’s not our fault if we can’t get the people.”
Seip went on to say that, after the last hockey season saw problems with users not respecting staff who were enforcing COVID-19 regulations, he wanted to make sure that wasn’t repeated.
Luttenberger agreed, saying that staff had considered hiring security to check for COVID-19 vaccination status, though that could cost $5,000 per week.
Seip said that could be paid for with COVID-19 funding, however staff said there would be between $20,000 and $40,000 of the funding left after other projects, meaning that could only cover four to eight weeks of ice use.
Council approved Luttenberger’s addition of a full-time position in Wingham and changing a part-time position to a full-time position in Blyth.