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Half of county workers ‘underpaid’

But $17,997 consultant won’t identify which employers were studied

Staff writer

A new, $17,997 study of whether the county pays its employees enough began last week with a consultant telling commissioners that 49 percent of county starting salaries were below the midpoint of minimums paid by 27 other organizations she had studied.

But she declined to identify for commissioners or the public what those organizations were.

The county contracted in April with McGrath Human Resources Consulting of Wonder Lake, Illinois, to provide the study.

Five other companies bid on the project. Two bid substantially less — $11,375 and $13,700 — while two others bid substantially more — $32,500 and $34,650.

County pay scales were last studied in 2014. A more comprehensive review than the 2014 study was performed in 2008, according to county clerk Tina Spencer.

The county’s current pay structure provides a minimum base pay, which increases after six months, after one year, after five years, and thereafter after every additional five years on the job, through 45 years.

The scale rewards seniority, provided a basic review is passed. Cost-of-living increases are separate, as are merit and reclassification increases, though in some cases a merit raise may be subsumed into another raise.

Each step increases the employees’ pay by an average of 1.78 percent, with bigger increases (averaging 1.95 percent) for the first step gradually declining to smaller increases (averaging 1.63 percent) for the final step, according to an analysis of data provided by Spencer.

Percentage increases are not the same across job classifications.

Initial six-month raises are highest (2.02 percent) for a wide range of clerical assistant jobs and lowest for skilled blue-collar jobs like mechanic (0.95 percent) and various driver, equipment operator, and pesticide technician positions and for corrections officers and driver’s license examiners (1.91 percent).

The cumulative effect is that after five years on the job, almost all county employees earn a minimum of 5.9 percent more than what they would have as new hires.

After 10 years, they earn a minimum of 7.8 or 7.9 percent more than they would have as new hires, and after 20 years it’s 11.8 percent more — although there is a notable exception for mechanics, whose pay rises much more slowly (3.9 percent after 10 years and 6.0 percent after 20).

In at least some areas, the county tends to start its employees at a higher level than other public employers in the region.

A new, entry-level equipment operator for road and bridges, for example, starts at $13.08 an hour while an entry-level equipment operator trainee for Kansas Department of Transportation in Marion and at most locations statewide starts at $12.66 an hour, according to engineer Joe Palic of the KDOT Marion office.

“I don’t think we’re very competitive,” Palic said, “and a few of our guys have gone over to the county or cities, but not many recently — maybe eight or 10 years ago. We haven’t had a lot of that, maybe once over two years ago.”

Asked whether he had trouble finding new employees, Palik’s response was short and to the point: “Oh, yes!” But he added that he wasn’t sure pay was the determining factor.

Where the county has been having trouble finding employees isn’t for entry-level, semi-skilled positions. A relatively recent job candidate said she had been one of more than a dozen applicants for a clerical position some months ago.

Rather, according to consultant Malayna Halvorson Maes, a key problem is “compression” of the pay scale, with senior subordinates sometimes earning more than less senior superiors.

Maes did not cite specific examples, but a deputy sheriff with five years on the job would have a minimum base pay of $18.03 while a sheriff’s sergeant with six months on the job would get only $17.78.

Base pay isn’t the only problem.

“This is a problem especially in the sheriff’s department because of overtime,” Maes said.

Maes questioned whether commissioners really wanted longevity with the county to be as important a factor as it is in the pay scale. She said offering longevity raises that extend all the way up to 45 years was “really big.”

But she also said the gap between minimum and maximum pay within each classification was only 22 percent, which she termed “a very narrow range.”

“Employees are not progressing through the scale fast enough,” she said, “and there’s not a lot of room between positions.”

With superiors and subordinates earning close to the same amount and longevity substituting for merit, “it’s a disincentive for people to want to work harder,” she said.

Commission chairman Dianne Novak said she might favor doing away with longevity as a determinant of pay.

“We’re just pay-raising, pay-raising,” she said.

But commissioner Kent Becker said: “There ought to be some type of recognition for longevity, whether that’s merit or what.”

To which Novak responded: “Used to be you got a gold watch.”

Maes warned that younger workers were willing to travel as much an hour a day for higher wages elsewhere.

“We have to position ourselves so we’re not just a trainer,” Becker replied.

But Novak responded that it often was good to bring new ideas into an organization and “sometimes they leave not for money but for other reasons.”

Commissioner Randy Dalke speculated as to one of the reasons.

“Maybe they don’t like dealing with county commissioners,” he said.

Before meeting with commissioners, Maes met with a broad cross-section of county employees, including “some very good employees, who are dedicated to the organization.”

“There was not a person who was here just for the money,” she said.

But, she added: “Employees don’t feel appreciated. They feel pressure to do more with less to make ends. Some are going to train and then exit. Operations have been impacted because you can’t find hires in professional and technical positions.”

She hopes to present results of her study next month, but she almost scoldingly told commissioners: “I’m really afraid this will sit on a shelf.”

She added: “If you adopt the system, just say here are the rules. You shouldn’t have to authorize every individual raise.”

No members of the general public attended the meeting, but an unusually large number of county employees did.

Among them were Susan Berg, Ashley Herpich, Rhonda Curry, Gayla Ratzlaff, Diedre Serene, and Kathy Swan.

Last modified July 26, 2018

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