Sunday, September 26, 2021

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Commissioners approve bonuses to stem turnover in social services

Alamance County’s board of commissioners has agreed to let the head of the county’s social services department distribute bonuses to both current and future staff members in order to halt a tide of turnover that has recently depleted her ranks.

During the course of a 7 1/2 meeting last Monday, the commissioners gave Adrian Daye, the county’s social services director, the all-clear to issue retention bonuses to more than 140 veteran employees as well as signing bonuses to many new hires in the hope they will stem the department’s turnover rate.

The commissioners ultimately voted 3 to 2 to allow Daye to obtain the $393,239 to cover these bonuses from the lapsed salaries that her department has accumulated from its vacant positions. The county’s social services director insisted that her agency’s continuous defections have more or less ensured that she’ll have enough unspent payroll funds to cover the bonuses.

“As of today, we have 46 openings,” she informed the commissioners before last Monday’s vote. “We had six people to leave just on Friday.

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“I think we were looking at it as something that could have some immediate effect,” she added, “to really stop the bleeding right now.”

The county’s personnel office confirms that the turnover in social services is indeed much higher than in it is in other county government agencies. According to the personnel office, the social services department had, by the end of July, accumulated 74 departures over the previous 12 months, giving it an annual turnover rate of 37.82 percent. In contrast, the personnel office puts the county’s overall turnover rate for this same period at 19.06 percent. The personnel office has also observed an increase in DSS turnover since July of 2020, when the department’s annual rate stood at 30.25 percent.

As of Tuesday, the county’s personnel office was aware of 47 vacancies in the 184 full-time positions at the department of social services and its affiliated agencies like the county’s family justice center.

The proposal that Daye pitched to the commissioners calls for $231,600 to provide retention bonuses for 142 existing staff members. These bonuses would be as high as $2,000 for the 69 people in the department’s five most turnover-prone posts, which include social workers in adult and child protective services. Other veteran employees would receive an extra $1,000 to $1,600 based on their years of experience.

Daye has also proposed signing bonuses of $2,000 for new hires in the top five turnover positions, as well as referral bonuses for existing staff members who convince others to join the department. The department’s director has slated $50,000 to cover the proposed signing bonuses and another $30,000 to fund the anticipated expense of the referral bonuses.

Daye presented her plan to the commissioners barely six months after they signed off on some mid-year pay raises for employees who labor in some of her department’s most chronically vacant positions.

During last Monday’s discussion, Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood confessed that these 4-percent increases have left some low-ranking staff members earning more than their supervisors. The county manager added that this predicament has compelled Daye to include $13,391 in her spending request to lift the pay of five middle managers who’ve been affected by this so-called salary “compression.”

In the meantime, Hagood informed the commissioners that the original pay hikes have never really had the intended effect on defections within the department of social services.

“Even at 4 percent, we’re still low [compared to other neighboring counties],” he conceded, “and that action didn’t seem to have the result that we desired.”

Although Daye’s latest plan also relies on compensation to address the turnover problem, she acknowledged that low pay isn’t even currently the main driving force for her department’s staff-level defections. Daye told the commissioners that, until recently, many staff members had jumped ship in order to secure higher-paid posts in other jurisdictions.

“[But] right now,” she added, “the main reason for people leaving is the amount of work that they have to do.”

The county’s social services director nevertheless expressed hope that her proposed bonuses will allow her to restaff areas that have been hit hardest by turnover – and in the process, reduce the unsustainable workloads. Hagood also acknowledged that some immediate one-time bonuses seemed to him like the best way to staunch the hemorrhaging that social services has witnessed.

“We certainly hope that this will help DSS,” he added. “But, I think that in the long run, yes, adjusting DSS’s salaries is going to be the answer to this.”

The commissioners, for their part, seemed torn as to whether they should immediately sign off on the requested bonuses or hold off until the county’s administrators have crafted a more strategic solution to the department’s turnover.

Some commissioners like Craig Turner were willing to accept the proposed bonuses as a short-term prelude to another, a more carefully-designed plan to make the salaries in social services more competitive.

“It seems to me that there’s an immediate need and that we have to stop the bleeding,” Turner told the rest of the county’s governing board. “This does that to an extent. But we also need to take a long, hard look at DSS – its pay structure and its retention…to allow the agency to excel.”

Meanwhile, John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, was determined to postpone a decision on the proposed bonuses in order to deal with the underlying issue of salaries.

“I would suggest to the board that we put this over to the 16th [of August],” he said. “I think we need to find out what the problem is and come back on the 16th with a solution that might solve the problem…Ms. Daye, I’m going to vote against this…because I think we’re putting a Band-Aid on.”

Paisley was joined in his inclination to focus on salaries by Pam Thompson, who represents the commissioners on the county’s semi-independent social services board.

“I’d rather have a wage that’s competitive so I can stay in my own county than a one-time bonus,” Thompson declared, putting herself in the place of rank-and-file social services staff members, “and I don’t want Adrian feeling that she can’t ask for that. I think we really need to look at the salaries of the department of social services so they are competitive.”

Commissioner Bill Lashley was also initially reluctant to authorize the proposed bonuses without a long-term plan in place to address turnover. Lashley even championed the idea of higher starting salaries based on the success that he has seen this measure achieve in the private sector.

“Let’s up the salary and give them a signing bonus,” he told his fellow commissioners. “Let’s make it such a way that they will think twice about walking out the door…I’m saying let’s attack the problem that we have – let’s throw some money on it – and see what happens”
Lashley eventually agreed to support Daye’s plan for the bonuses after Hagood assured the commissioners that the department needs to take immediate action to stop its defections.

“It is a crisis when you’re 46 [employees] down, and when the department is starting to struggle to meet its service demands,” the county manager added. “If you don’t implement something today, we’re going to have something back before you on the 16th.”

Hagood also cast doubt on the possibility that the social services department could make meaningful adjustments in wages without an increase in its departmental budget.

A mere two months ago, the commissioners slashed hundreds from the department’s lapsed salaries in order to bankroll part of a 1-cent tax cut that they wrote into the county’s current annual budget. The county manager acknowledged on Monday that these cuts have theoretically forced Daye to leave eight social service positions vacant, but noted that in actuality they shouldn’t have much of an effect given the agency’s historically consistent turnover. Hagood added, however, that salary increases on the scale which the commissioners were contemplating would leave less cash in the kitty for Daye to fill open positions.

Hagood’s appeal was echoed by Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, who argued that he and his colleagues have an obligation to adequately staff the social services department in order “to make sure our citizens get serviced.”

Carter went on to join Turner and Lashley in the 3-to-2 vote in favor of Daye’s proposed bonuses. Paisley, meanwhile, voted against the measure as did Thompson – although, in her case, the vote was accompanied by the caveat that she opposed the bonuses “just because I want to look at salaries.”

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