County rejects raises for lower paid workers

 

(Jan. 19, 2018) In the last 18 months, Worcester County government has lost about 20 percent of its workforce for a variety of reasons, but also has had trouble filling a number of long-term vacancies, according to a report by Human Resources Director Stacey Norton.

Norton delivered her report as part of a special work session on county salaries following the commissioners’ regular meeting on Tuesday.

County Administrator Harold Higgins said the county staff’s budget priority for this year was salaries above all other concerns, while also remaining realistic about funding opportunities to pay for any increases.

Higgins said he knew it was an election year and there would be no tax increases to help offset any requested expenditure increases from county departments. During the budget process, expenditure requests frequently outpace the county’s ability to pay for them, requiring the commissioners to make cuts.

However, the hiring problems are so dire they required Norton to make a mid-year salary increase request to help fill the ranks. The proposal prepared by Norton targeted the lowest-paid employees first, and wouldn’t require any new spending from the commissioners.

“After conferring with Budget Officer Kathy Whited, we have determined that these reclassifications can be funded in our current budget due to savings from current employee retirements and vacant positions,” Norton wrote in her proposal.

The total cost to implement this part of the plan is about $291,000.

The plan focused on four concerns: compliance with the federal minimum wage, the positions with the highest turnover, the positions with the lowest pay and setting a minimum rate for supervisor positions.

In total, 39 county positions would be affected by this part of the plan. If implemented, the changes would have gone into effect immediately, giving some of the county’s lowest-paid workers an immediate boost.

Future phases would work their way up the ladder to all county staff.

Commissioner Jim Bunting was the harshest critic of the idea, and said he was not comfortable spending $290,000 so close to the beginning of the budget process, when that money might be more useful elsewhere.

“We sit here and laud department heads for cleaning the roads, and they didn’t do it alone,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said.

The people doing the heavy lifting, putting “shovels to the sidewalk” were making $12 per hour, Mitrecic said.

“We’re going to lose people because we don’t have the salaries,” Commissioner President Diana Purnell said. “The bottom line is we need to get better salaries.”

Commissioner Chip Bertino saw the logic, but didn’t fancy the timing.

“I understand the need, but I have a problem doing it now instead of at budget time. The trouble I see is that we saved it, so now we think we can spend it,” he said.

Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw was concerned with Roads Division workers who would accept employment with the county, get trained for a commercial driver’s license, and then leave immediately after earning the license for a higher-paying job elsewhere.

Lockfaw said he would like to see some kind of time commitment attached to training, as is done in the Sheriff’s Office with the police academy.

However, the academy is considered outside training, Norton said, and the commercial driver’s license classes are performed internally. To change the process would require a massive policy overhaul, she said.

Commissioner Bud Church said the county gets what it pays for. If the rate is eight or nine dollars per hour, the work will reflect that salary, he said.

“We have to start getting better people,” Church said.

Commissioner Vice President Ted Elder was present for much of the discussion, but had to leave before the motion to proceed with the plan was made by Church and seconded by Mitrecic.

The vote split 3-3, with Purnell joining Mitrecic and Church in favor, and with Bunting, Bertino and Lockfaw against.

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