Lessons learned (and still learning) on equity and seasonal staff

Photo by Roderick Cooney, www.thecampphotographer.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog post was written by a TSCS member. We chose to keep her name private because she is reflecting on a study conducted by her organization that has not yet been released externally. Questions? Contact me! kurtz@thesummercampsociety.com

By An Anonymous TSCS Member

I'm a day camp director at a large non-profit program, and I hire a lot of seasonal staff to work at camp. My organization operates much like a 3-season resort and conference type of place. We have about 90 full-time, year-round staff, and hire about 200 seasonal staff to work in our kitchens, buildings and grounds, housekeeping, maintenance, and education departments. Recently my organization hired a consultant to help us with issues of diversity, equity, power, and privilege. It was a yearlong engagement full of individual interviews, focus groups, surveys, and more. The report and findings are still an internal document as my organization works out how to best share our work, struggles, realizations, and learnings with our larger public community. For that reason I am removing identifying information about my organization until we share our assessment with the larger public.

The assessment is divided into 6 categories highlighting current strengths, and areas for growth. The entire report lays out a suggested multi-year roadmap on how to implement the areas for growth into our current and future work. The category that was most impactful for me to read about was the seasonal staff. It had me thinking about summer camp seasonal staffing across the industry, and gave me pause (as I hope it will for you) to critically examine the extent to which we are passively perpetuating systematic marginalization and oppression of our seasonal employees. Here are a few major findings in the seasonal staff category:

  • "There is considerable seasonal work and the demographics for particular seasonal positions are different than those in full time positions." This is especially true for my organization in the housekeeping department. Why is 'the help' a group of non-white people?

  • "While many seasonal staff choose to work seasonally and enjoy the opportunity, for others it is a particular hardship. The pay is not high; there are unclear promotion processes; there is no health insurance; and the seasonal nature impacts integrity." We can't necessarily control some of these things, but think about who isn't applying to work at camp because of these factors?

  • "Additionally, the use of volunteers who have seasonal flexibility, particularly students who do not need (i.e., financially) to work in the summer, doubly-advantages certain groups and potentially decreases the number of potential paid seasonal positions."  What are you relying on volunteers for? Are volunteers doing the same work you're paying someone to do also? Who on your volunteer staff can afford to be a volunteer, and why? Who are you missing out on who can't afford to volunteer for the summer?

Here are some quotes from interviews with seasonal staff:

  • “I love this place but do I want to be resigning myself to looking for a job every off season?”

  • “They know I need a job after the season ends, yet, how am I supposed to carve out time to interview, write cover letters, and seek employment.”

  • “I loved working here, I was not going to take a doctor appointment because it was going to cost me the money for the appointment and the lost hours. When you don’t have health insurance, you make unhealthy choices.”

  • “They bank on the goodwill that I will return because the conditions are better here (not by pay but by community)...they bank on the love that I have for this place and that doesn’t make me feel valued. I don’t want a “thank you” I want dignity.”

  • "And the seasonal are so distant from the year-round.”

Ouch, that quote about wanting dignity stings particularly. As a director and supervisor I care personally and professionally for my staff. I want them to feel supported in finding off-season employment, in making healthy choices, in feeling dignified, and feeling like a part of a larger team. How do we talk the talk and walk the walk, to both tell and show our seasonal employees we want these things for them?

My seasonal staff all have other options of summer employment, and they continue to come back to camp. Every time I read "I don’t want a 'thank you' I want dignity", I think about The Platinum Rule "treat others how they want to be treated". I reached out to ask my returning staff what it would look like for them to be respected by me or our organization. The overwhelming majority of staff said they want more responsibilities and trust.

What will that look like for me as a camp director this year? Here's my plan, for now:

  • Have returning staff lead and facilitate sessions for staff training: Staff will sign up for which session(s) they want to lead. I'll give them guidelines, support, and materials, then get out of their way, and follow up with praise and feedback.

  • Re-structured check-ins with the topic of late summer check-ins to help capture their experience on a resume, share with them what I would say about them in a reference, maybe share the reference questions I use, so they get an idea of what goes on on those reference check phone calls.

  • More delegation of what's on my plate, when appropriate and applicable

Additional responsibilities will allow some staff to feel respected and trusted, while others may feel exploited. Not all my staff will always want the same thing but whatever it is they're needing and wanting I hope to build open relationships that allow us to co-create processes with them that allow for the systematic dismantling of oppression and the advancement of educational growth and equity in a seasonal workplace.