OSWEGO — Labette County departments are having difficulty filling positions, mostly because of starting pay, but there are other issues involved.

Wages and benefits to county employees were topics of discussion Monday at the Labette County Commission meeting. The discussion served as a precursor for budget talks that could begin in earnest next week.

911 Director Brandy Grassl was first among department heads to speak Monday. She said supervisors want to address recruitment and retention of employees. The employee pool has shrunk, which many blame on the extended unemployment benefits that made it more profitable for people to stay home than work. 

Grassl said she had a dispatcher position open since March 2020 and just filled that last week. She said she went through several hiring processes and would get between one and four applicants. In past years she would get 15 to 20 applicants. Starting pay and insurance kept the position open.

She said corrections and emergency medical services are experiencing a similar reduction in those willing to apply for openings. As a result, employees who remain with the county are having to work extra shifts, which increases stressors those in emergency services already feel, Grassl said.

She said she had four ideas to share with commissioners that would have a minimal impact on the budget.

Commissioner Lonie Addis noted that increasing benefits could increase the budget. Grassl said that’s not necessarily true.

Commissioner Cole Proehl said commissioners need to do something before the problem gets worse. A person can’t answer 911 calls from home or watch over the jail from home. 

“I think that’s something we need to probably address before nobody wants to do it,” Proehl said.

Grassl suggested increasing the shift differential in her department from 40 cents an hour to 75 cents an hour. Evenings and weekends would be given the increased hourly pay. Just making this adjustment would increase her budget $7,500 a year, though she said she didn’t include benefits (retirement, worker’s comp) in that calculation.

Commissioner Brian Kinzie supported that idea. 

Grassl also suggested stretching out the longevity table for county employees from eight years to 12 years. Longevity pay increases end after eight years of employment. So the only wage increase thereafter would be cost of living adjustments. Employee turnover is the biggest budget drain for departments, she said.

“It’s not about knowing the job, it’s about keeping the person you’ve invested so much money in here,” Grassl said. “There’s no other incentive other than a little vacation increase after 10 years and 15 years to keep going.”

She added, “Longevity means something. All you have to sell in this world is your time. And we want them to sell their time here and stay here.”

Grassl also would like to be able to pay employees for unused sick days at the end of the year. Employees are allowed to carry over 320 hours of sick time each year. She suggested paying the employees for any hours over 320 that accumulate.

“It’s an incentive not to call in sick once a month, because right now you can call in sick once a month and not burn any time,” Grassl said. “Something like that, that’s an incentive for staying on.”

Addis was concerned that the extra pay would mean a budget increase, which means an increase in property taxes, which commissioners have tried to avoid in recent years.

“There’s nothing that I can come up with that is free,” Grassl said.

Addis said commissioners approved a $1 an hour raise last year for county employees based on savings in the health insurance plan.

“So we did return that to the employees because the claims were down,” Addis said.

Grassl said that $1 increase was helpful. But it’s not enough in today’s marketplace.

Sheriff Darren Eichinger said he advertised a corrections position on the sheriff’s Facebook page and people ridiculed him for the low starting wage, $14.38 an hour that tops out at $16.99 an hour. He said he’s had a couple of positions open for the last two months and had one applicant. The jail’s starting wage is much lower than what a corrections employee could make at the state prison in Oswego. Nationally, he said jailers make an average of $53,000 a year.

Addis told Grassl that he agreed with everything she said.

“Tell me, how are we going to pay for it?” Addis asked.

Public Works Director Sandy Krider said she’s lost 17 employees since 2019. She’s still down three employees. The last two hiring cycles she had applicants go through the testing and turn down the job at the end because of the starting pay of $14.38 an hour. The starting wage is higher if the employee has a commercial driver’s license. To complicate matters, she has four employees who will be retiring soon. Most of these are motor grader operators.

She said applicants say they cannot make end’s meet on the county’s starting wage.

Grassl and Krider said they would like to see the county offer insurance to spouses of employees. This was eliminated in January 2018 to save money on the county’s self-funded health insurance plan, but employees then have to get insurance on the open market for a spouse, and that is expensive.

Eichinger said he had four applicants not take job offers because spouses could not be insured through the county. He also said when he first started with the county two decades ago his take home pay was small after paying for insurance for his wife and family.

“All these things are possible if commissioners are willing to commit tax dollars,” Addis said, but commissioners plan on discussing the issues further during budget.

Grassl said she will tell her employees that commissioners are trying to address the matters.

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