Two sides of a coin: Not all happy with county reclassification; County says its equitable and fair to taxpayers, employees

Published 10:50 am Sunday, July 29, 2018

The county’s compensation and reclassification system isn’t getting high marks by some county employees.

Some in the 275-employee group, including those in public safety, say their years of service aren’t adequately reflected in the new grid, which found some who were at the top of their pay scale being bumped down to lower steps.

While no pay was lost, some feel they should have been placed on the same step they had earned before implementation.

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But County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said there will always be some unhappiness when a new system is implemented. He said both he and the county board said it was a fair approach in which no one loses pay and the taxpayers aren’t overly burdened.

With this reclassification — Oscarson said there have been multiple ones since he began his service in the 1980s — a market component was added, since it was known that some salaries were markedly under neighboring counties.

He said there are always “winners and losers, depending on your definition,” and did not think any changes would be made.

“In fact, I haven’t had as much complaint with this (change) as much as the last one we did” in 2008, when about 30-40 employees raised concerns, he said.

Still, he said, he does understand not being placed on the same step “is a downside” to the process.

But Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi says the system is unfair to employees who have long tenure in county service. She said her chief deputy, Mark May, is a good example. After the reclassification, “he is now considered a step 4 after 16 years on the job; he has to wait six more years before he’s at the top” of his salary schedule.

“And that’s a bunch of baloney,” she said. “He should be there (on the top step) now.”

Reclassification is a process used to periodically readjust salary schedules and adopt new rankings of job categories.

The recent reclassification, designed following the result of a consultant’s study by Fox and Lawson and Associates, takes into account a number of factors, such as the education required to do the job, length of time it takes to learn the job, what level of decision-making is required, contact with others, and working conditions, which evaluates how hazardous a job might be, Osacarson said.

Those factors were first established by the state in the 1980s when it initiated the Pay Equity Act — more popularly known as “comparable worth,” as a way to evaluate whether female employees were being paid fairly compared to their male counterparts. The state continues to require comparable worth studies, which is why several have been done.

A salary step schedule for a particular job classification is like a staircase with  steps. Each year, a new step is taken, with each step bringing a wage increase. Those who fell in between steps at reclassification were placed onto the next highest step. Each step has different rankings.

So each year, an employee earns a raise when they arrive on the next step, paid on their anniversary date; they also receive a cost of living increase on their birthday. Pay changes when negotiated with a group’s union or bargaining unit.

When a new system is implemented, employees may be left at their current step, placed on a new, higher step, depending on the reclassification, or dropped down to a lower step.

No one lost money at the time of implementation in May, which was also retroactive to the first of the year. If an employee was dropped to a lower step on the scale, he or she continues to receive their previous salary until the salary range for the new classification exceeds their current salary.

While employees might focus on how their pay changes, “Comparable worth, in my mind, is not designed to be an extra pay raise for employees; it’s meant to be an equalization adjustment,” Oscarson cautioned. He added all unions signed off on the reclassification.

Mower County Commissioner and board chairman Tim Gabrielson agreed with Oscarson that there have been only a handful of complaints that he had heard; he has also heard of employees happy with the change.

One of the most significant, he said, is that addition of more steps that, in turn, provide more potential for employee earnings in the future.

“They’re going to be making more, no matter what,” he said. Gabrielson, a member of the personnel committee, added that he and fellow commissioners were happy with the extensive work done, especially by Human Resources Director Sherry Roth.

He said it was a complex process, but one required by the state.

“It can be difficult,” he added, given that almost all of the employee groups belong to unions.

“So much is determined in negotiations,” he said, so that reclassifying “is  sometimes like walking two tight ropes” with the negotiations on one side and pay equity on the other.

“But if we don’t do it right, we get penalized,” he said.

But Amazi said years of service should mean more than what is sometimes reflected on that scale.

Although she retires at the end of the year and knows no changes will be made, she bristles when noting that even her own position’s pay is markedly lower than some fellow sheriffs in the region, many of whom have only a few years on the job. She believes her years of experience should make a difference, especially in a county whose crime rate is higher than all of the non-metro counties in southeastern Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Uniform Crime Report for 2017. It shows Mower County with a crime rate of 8,499, which reflects the number of offenses per 100,000 populations.

However, there are more troubling issues, she said. While at first glance you see that jailers and dispatchers are starting their jobs at an increased wage, Amazi said at three years, they are making the same wage as a new recruit.

Dispatcher Lori Reed agreed, noting, “We have trainers with the same pay as the people they’re training … it’s hard. Acknowledgement of years of service is huge.”

Reed, with 26 years of service, also got dropped down from step 10 to a step 7. And while she understands that beginning pay was raised — the old beginning wage was some 7 percent under the market for the same job, she said — she is not sure that being of equal standing with other counties’ wages for those jobs necessarily makes the Mower County jobs more competitive. And, with each negotiation, she said, “it doesn’t mean it (pay levels in other counties) will stay that way. It can change pretty quickly.”

Reed is the union steward for the dispatchers and also said while it was known there would be a reclassification at the time of negotiations last fall, “we had no idea of the classifications and how they would be implemented.”

Reed said she questions whether the reclassification process used really reflects the responsibilities required of dispatchers. They are not unlike air traffic controllers, directing officers, answering calls, providing information, and making swift and trained decisions that can make life-saving differences.

“Each and every call is different. There is no set rule for everything,” she said.

And, she said, there are no clues as to the activity a new day will bring.

“When you look at the stress — you can work at Mayo and get more than $20 an hour and have a whole lot less stress. It’s not a competitive market anymore; beneath me, the next person has 16 years … we have probably seven people that have less than five years. You can look at the studies out there for just dispatch alone and it is amazing what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) some dispatchers carry. There are calls we all have that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. Not everyone can be a dispatcher.”

She also handles many clerk duties, including warrants, jail bookings. “And we are one of the few in southeastern Minnesota that still writes up officer reports.”

Retention is an on-going issue. She said of the 14 person-group, eight dispatchers were hired last year “and we should have another one starting; the turnover is extremely high.” She added she has heard of other complaints among dispatchers and those working in the jail.

Amazi agreed. Jail and dispatch personnel are hard to find; letting them stall after three years usually means “that we’re going to lose them,” she said. Four of the five county jobs open right now are for corrections officers in the jail, and a dispatcher.

The system also reflects an inequity in the sheriff’s pay when compared to the market, Amazi said. While the current classification really doesn’t affect her future, she hopes changes are made in the future to fairly reflect tenure and job responsibility.

Five of six area sheriffs, some in less populated counties, have higher rates of pay with less tenure than Amazi.

Steele County Sheriff  Lon Thiele, with eight years on the job, earns over $20,000 more, at $126,000; LeSueur County Sheriff  Brett Mason earns $5,000 more in salary, $110,589, all according to the minutes of their county board meetings when their 2018 salaries were adopted, or according to their salary compliance notices.

Oscarson said he understood that not placing someone at the same step they were on previously “is bitter to swallow” — and one that he has had to swallow. He was dropped to a step 9 from a 10, and his job ranking was a dropped a level as well.

However, he said if everyone transitioned to their corresponding step, the increase in wages and salaries would be far more than the $500,000 already spent in increased wages that resulted from the reclassification. Fifty-four employees were receiving less than the minimum salary for their new job classification, which resulted in raises.

“The county wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “It was decided this was the most cost-effective way without anyone losing any money,” Oscarson said.