Persistent problems with turnover have prompted Alamance County’s administrators to propose pay raises for employees in three areas of county government that they say have been bled dry by recent defections.
During a special-called work session on Friday (Dec. 10), the county’s administrators urged the members of Alamance County’s board of commissioners to consider these across-the-board increases for all full-time staff members in social services, the sheriff’s detention division, and the county’s emergency medical services.
The proposed hikes, which the commissioners are slated to vote on during a regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday (Dec. 20), would amount to an extra 9 percent for each full-time paramedic in the county’s employ; $5,000 for each social services employee; and $4,000 for every detention officer – with an added annual stipend of $4,000 for jailers who pull 12-hour shifts watching over the county’s inmates. In each case, the additional compensation would take effect on January 1 if approved by the commissioners next week.
During Friday’s work session, Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood conceded that these three sets of raises would cost county roughly $1.7 million for the remaining six
months of this fiscal year. Hagood nevertheless argued that the additional compensation will address some rather significant staffing shortages within the three affected agencies.
“This is an issue across the spectrum of county government,” the county manager went on to concede. “But these three departments are feeling a crunch without a doubt…and I do think it’s worthwhile to consider their proposals.”
According to the county’s latest staffing figures, problems with retention and recruitment have left the department of social services with 58 openings among its 230 full-time positions, giving it a vacancy rate of about 25 percent. In the meantime, the sheriff’s 151-person detention division has 50 openings, including 14 positions that are currently frozen, which amounts to a 33 percent vacancy rate, while EMS has vacancies in 11 of its 96 posts, or about 11.5 percent of its full-time workforce.
In each of these three cases, the commissioners have already authorized various financial incentives to help the afflicted agencies hire and retain more qualified staff members. These previous measures include 4-percent pay raises for three particularly high turnover positions in social services as well as signing and retention bonuses of $2,000 each for the agency’s five hardest-pressed posts.
The county’s current budget also extends wage increases of 5 percent to all of the sheriff’s subordinates, and the commissioners have subsequently approved additional bumps for those with ranks sergeant and above.
More recently, the commissioners have offered the county’s paramedics bonuses of $100 and $200 to work an extra 12- or 24-hour shift in order to offset staffing shortages in EMS.
Ray Vipperman, the county’s EMS director, conceded that this extra compensation has indeed helped with agency’s staffing crunch, which had, at one point, forced him to periodically park
one of the county’s ambulances for lack of an adequate crew. In fact, the county’s EMS director had 8 fewer vacancies on Friday than the 19 which he had reported in August, when the commissioners agreed to implement the aforementioned bonuses to help curb the turnover in his department.
“We’ve had a paramedic shortage for some time . . . Recruiting was hard before Covid, and recruiting became impossible after Covid…We have dealt with a lot of retirements. . . and add to that the increased competition from other agencies.” – Ray Vipperman, Alamance County’s director of Emergency Medical Services
Vipperman nevertheless argued that this short-term improvement hadn’t addressed the underlying problems with retention and recruitment that he said have beset his agency.
“We’ve had a paramedic shortage for some time,” he told the commissioners on Friday. “Recruiting was hard before Covid, and recruiting became impossible after Covid…We have dealt with a lot of retirements… and add to that the increased competition from other agencies.”
Vipperman said that an across-the-board wage hike of 9 percent would bring the starting pay for a paramedic up to $19.50 an hour, which he deemed in line with the base wages in other counties. The county’s EMS director estimated that these raises will cost $300,000 for the remainder of this fiscal year and $600,000 for the following financial cycle – funds that he acknowledged aren’t in his department’s current annual budget. Vipperman was nevertheless optimistic that external sources of revenue, such as federal pandemic relief, may be available to cover the difference.
SHERIFF’S OFFICE, ESPECIALLY DETENTION OFFICERS
The availability of funds was less of a problem for Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson, who assured the commissioners that his current budget can absorb the $738,000 that his proposed raises would cost for remainder of this fiscal year. Johnson admitted that he may
need more money in the following year, when the estimated cost of raises is expected to climb to $1,231,482. Yet, he insisted that the salary increases would be well worth the cost if they stop his detention division from hemorrhaging experienced staff members.
“We have had 12 assaults because we didn’t have the staff to run that jail. . . When you have that reduced staff, it’s unsafe for the inmates and it’s unsafe for the detention officers. . . and that’s a liability to us.” – Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson
“Since October 22, we’ve lost 56 detention officers,” he went on to inform the commissioners. “We have had 12 assaults because we didn’t have the staff to run that jail… When you have that reduced staff, it’s unsafe for the inmates and it’s unsafe for the detention officers…and that’s a liability to us.”
Johnson added that there may come a time when the jail’s staffing shortages will endanger his long-standing arrangements with the US Marshals Service and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which pay the county millions of dollars a year for the space to temporarily house their detainees.
“Something has to be done or else I’m going to have to cancel a contract with the feds,” he declared. “I’m asking you today, by George, to do something for these detention officers.”
The commissioners heard an equally dire report on Friday from the county’s social services director Adrian Daye, who stressed that her agency’s vacancy rate has been particular high in areas like child welfare, where inadequate staffing could literally have life-or-death consequences.
“A reduced workforce for us could result in fatalities,” Daye told the county’s governing board. “As a leader of DSS, that is my fear every single day. It is the thing that keeps me up at night.”
“A reduced workforce for us could result in fatalities…As a leader of DSS, that is my fear every single day. It is the thing that keeps me up at night.” – Adrian Daye, Alamance County’s social services director
Daye also bemoaned the impact that high turnover has had on her agency’s remaining staff, who’ve exhibited increased burnout and decreased job satisfaction as well as a dip in the quality of their work. On the bright side, she informed the commissioners that the lapsed salaries in her existing budget should cover the $694,146 needed to fund an across-the-board raise of $5,000 for the rest of this fiscal year. Daye stopped short of making the same claim for the following year, when the cost of the salary increases would rise to $1,388,292.
The commissioners, for their part, generally seemed sympathetic to the plights of the three department heads who appeared before them on Friday. Perhaps the most direct statement of support came from commissioner Pam Thompson, who reminded her colleagues of the crucial functions that these vacancy-riddled areas have for the county.
“Crisis agencies are literally in crisis, and when you have people who do this kind of work [being] short staffed, you get people who are hurt.” – county commissioner Pam Thompson
“Crisis agencies are literally in crisis,” she asserted, “and when you have people who do this kind of work [being] short staffed, you get people who are hurt.
“I cannot understand how county workers do everything for us,” the commissioner added, “and we don’t believe they are worth the money they are paid.”