Pamplin Media Group – State-funded outdoor education program faces a reckoning

Oregon’s Outdoor School skirts labor laws. Employees say that needs to change.

In Oregon, Outdoor School is a beloved institution, a right of passage for fifth and sixth graders. Each year, students head out into the wilderness for roughly a week, learning about ecology and biology while taking in nature in a camp setting.

It’s such a well-regarded program that in 2016, Oregon voters passed Measure 99 to carve out permanent funding for it. But staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic have highlighted loopholes in Oregon’s labor laws that Outdoor School has relied on.

Seasonal employees of nonprofit youth camps are exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay rules. Employees say the program needs to be revamped to keep it running safely and equitably.

At one Outdoor School camp run by Multnomah Education Service District, which serves school districts in Multnomah County and a few outside the county, staffers were so overworked, they penned a letter to managers in early May, asking for rest breaks and better pay.

“Work conditions at Outdoor School this season are inadequate for providing safe programming to participants and are not supportive of staff in crucial ways,” the letter, signed by seven employees, stated.

This year, instructors said staffing decreased, but the number of students didn’t. Work schedules show program instructors work at least 60 hours a week, with less than two full days off. Staff at one site said they work more than that.

“We are taking on the responsibilities of staff that are not present, and we expect to be paid using these additional funds so that our wages represent the amount of work we are doing. For some of us, this is a request. For others, a demand,” the letter employees from stated. “Without the promise of better pay, some of us will make the decision to leave this program immediately.”

Hana Maaiah was one of the first to quit the program before the spring season ended. Maaiah, 27, made the trek from Alabama, where she worked on a farm, to take the seasonal job in Oregon.

Like many, she said she thought the job might be a good primer for a future career in Outdoor Education, but the workload quickly became untenable.

“We were supposed to have 12 full-time staff. We only had three, but they were still sending full groups of students,” Maaiah said.

Documents show Maaiah was paid about $700 a week. Others were paid less — about $664 weekly. Most new staffers weren’t aware of Oregon’s labor law exemptions for camp workers. In fact, at least two of them, including Maaiah, filed complaints with Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries because they thought they were being shorted overtime pay.

“Every time we had a meal, we usually had a staff meeting during those times. We were having staff meetings at 10:30 pm,” Maaiah said. “A lot of people are financially glued to this position because they come from out of town and (Outdoor School) provides housing and food. Even if this is legal, it’s not moral.”

She also noted gaps in training and oversight that gave her pause. Maaiah can’t swim, despite routinely leading groups of students alongside the Sandy River.

“I would always tell the students, ‘if you jump in that river, you will drown, because I can’t save you,'” she said.

Maaiah wasn’t the only one dismayed. Lily Martin said she felt exploited by the grueling workload.

“This is my first session as a field instructor and will also be my last. I absolutely love teaching the students to be curious and adventurous in the outdoors but will not return (due) to work conditions,” Martin said. “For weeks I didn’t receive a break before 7 pm”

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Middle schoolers take part in a water-based activity from a dock at an Outdoor School camp. Martin noted inconsistency in rules and break allotments among different Outdoor School sites. “Even with breaks scheduled meals we were encouraged to use that time to prepare for the next activity and at times asked to do work and have meetings during. We are stretched so incredibly thin, every day is a struggle to keep children attentive and safe. We are working at less than half capacity running a full day camp programming.”

Martin said her largest class size was 47 students. Instructors typically get at least one volunteer high school student in each of their groups to help lead classes.

Jennifer Basham is a senior program administrator for Multnomah Education Service District’s Outdoor School.

She’s passionate about the program, which provides a chance for students to get outside and explore the natural world, while building community. For many students in urban areas, Outdoor School is their first exposure to the wilderness. In the age of COVID isolation, it felt especially important to get kids outside this year.

“Outdoor School can be completely transformational for students,” Basham said, noting a teacher who recalled one particular student had never spoken in class until they arrived at Outdoor School.

“This year, we have really dug into focusing our curriculum on student engagement and student talking,” Basham said. “For a number of these students, this is their first time going on a field trip because of the pandemic.”

Basham has also seen first-hand how being in nature, watching a pond, or listening to the wind has helped ease students’ stress during a year marked by heightened distress and behavioral issues.PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Jennifer Basham (left) and Laura Conroy of Multnomah Education Service District tour an Outdoor School site in Boring, dubbed Kuratli.  The site hosts school groups and provides living quarters for seasonal instructors.

She’s aware of employees’ concerns about equitable pay and work schedules, and said some of the changes sought by seasonal instructors may already be in the works. MESD administrators have considered retooling the staffing model, to create permanent jobs for employees.

“They are long days and one of the things we’ve kind of navigated is, because of the (pandemic) there was a little bit of an adjustment period,” Basham said. “One of the things in the works is how we’re shifting our program model for more stability. In what ways can we create permanent employment for our staff so they don’t have to find other employment?”

Since Measure 99 passed, state funding for staff has increased.

Oregon Outdoor School programs are funded by the state through the Oregon State University Extension Service using Oregon Lottery dollars. OSU doles out state funding, and is also responsible for training, curriculum resources and evaluation support for outdoor school providers.

Pay, benefits and working conditions are determined by educational districts, said Kristopher Elliot, director of the Outdoor School Program for OSU Extension Service. Elliot said the state has encouraged districts to increase the pay for instructors, and “many have done just that, by more than 20%, and some as high as 40%.”

He said Outdoor School providers across the state are trying to find ways to keep staff employed all season and provide insurance and staff benefits.

That would be the paradigm shift many employees say is necessary. Instructors would no longer be temporary workers and would receive labor protection benefits.

Outdoor School provides solace

The complaints that surfaced from the Multnomah County program may not reflect the culture of all Outdoor Schools in Oregon. In fact, Outdoor School has typically attracted employees who return each season. Basham said Multnomah County typically sees a 30% retention rate.

For some, the job is a perfect fit: a built-in community in a non-traditional work environment, devoid of institutional norms. Staffers are referred to by nature-inspired nicknames. It’s a common launch pad for those exploring a career in education.

Joe Hill is a science teacher at Madras High School. Prior to landing a permanent teaching gig, he taught Outdoor School through Northwest Regional Education Service District for four seasons.

“The reward of the job is really high,” Hill said. “You feel like you’re making an impact. You get to really connect to kids on a social-emotional level that I don’t think you do in other (settings).”

Still, Hill sees room for improvement, particularly when it comes to removing barriers to entry for instructors.

“I would say across the board, you see those folks working long hours, not just your typical eight hours a day,” he said. “You only get paid eight hours a day, even if you go overtime. People have definitely been aggravated by that. It’s problematic in a few ways. It’s a program that really stresses equity, but at the end of the day, those people working Those grueling hours, but only getting paid for 40-hour weeks, you tend to see a lot of white, upper-middle class kids working those jobs who are supported by their parents. I think that’s part of the frustration people have. It’s so rewarding, that those programs seem to take advantage of the willingness of these young adults to work for them for very little pay. I think that’s a culture in nonprofits in general.”

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