County discussing with consultants about increased pay for employees

(Photo Source: Unsplash).

Cortland County management employees could see a revamp to their salary structure that would signify increases to workers’ salaries at all levels of tenure and could position the county as a more competitive and attractive workplace, according to compensation consultants and legislators.

The proposed change in structure for management employees and management confidential workers would streamline the levels of tenure as they correlate to pay increases and offer salaries in tune with the needs of a modern day workforce. According to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, it includes managers, middle managers, and specialists in fields as diverse as education, law, computer science, medicine, administrative support, and law enforcement. A similar adjustment is also proposed for civil service employees. 

The county legislature held a recent special meeting to present the findings of a study commissioned to Burke Group, Rochester-based human resources consulting firm. According to Steve DePerrior, a compensation consultant at the firm, the study compared the county’s salary and benefits offerings to those found in neighboring counties, as well as companies and organizations in the private sector. It also used data from state and federal government entities that track labor statistics.

Management and its confidential employees are currently on a grade system, where they receive annual salary increments of 2 percent. The county offers six steps and 11 grades for management employees, according to DePerrior. Management employees climb a grade after every 10 years, and for management confidential employees, there are only five grades. There is a 4 percent increase between each grade from one to four, and an 8.2 percent increase between grades four and five.

“We have a structure that we think will serve the county well for the next three or four years,” DePerrior said in relation to the new proposal. “It is currently a crazy time in terms of compensation as far as the labor supply, people not going back to work, and the need to raise compensation levels to make sure we have capable people across the county.”

Based on the Burke Group’s market analysis, salaries for management and its confidential positions lagged behind market rate by 10 percent at what the study considers the midpoint. It is a management/management confidential employee who has worked for the county in that capacity for six years. 

A breakdown of the salary by management/management confidential position by department is relative to similar roles at other counties and in the private market revealed that all positions. They are underpaid compared to the market analysis. The county administrator department ranks lowest, with only a 74 percent rate compared to the market. Management/management confidential positions at the Board of Elections surpass other offerings factored in market analysis at 116.7 percent.

Based on peer group and market data, the Burke Group’s proposal for management employees would be to divide tenure into four different quartiles or pay-ranges, with the first quartile being the position’s starting rate. After three years of service, or for applicants who have comparable experience in a similar role, that rate would move to the second quartile. The third quartile is a pay-range for employees with seven-to-10 years of experience in a particular role with the county or a comparable job elsewhere. The fourth quartile is designated for employees who have worked at the county in a particular position, or in a similar role elsewhere, for 11 years or longer.

This proposed new structure adds a 12th grade to the scale. The new grade would presumably be opened for new positions, but the positions found at the lowest pay grade would be moved one tier above after a review by county officials, according to county administrator Rob Corpora.

There were eight grades presented in the new management confidential employees proposal, which would use the same quartiles structure.

Democratic Minority Leader Beau Harbin (LD-2) offered support for the new quartiles proposal.

“One of the things we have struggled with in the past is when people come in with experience in other areas, but it becomes a question of which all of these grades we put them in,” he said. “This gives us a structure.”

DePerrior echoed Harbin’s comments. He noted that counties across New York are opting to leave the grade system.

“It allows us to look at people who have experience, to quantify that to a greater extent and slot them within a more appropriate position in the structure,” DePerrior said. “(The proposed structure) helps us make sure we are not doing anything to our longer service employees that is contradictory, and provides greater flexibility in the long run.”

Part of the Burer Group’s analysis also looked at the benefits offered by the county, most of which rank above market for management/management confidential employees.

Employees compensated based on a 29-grade system

These groups of employees, who are compensated based on a 29-grade system and whose hourly wages are displayed in the study, would receive pay increases of 5 percent this year and 3 percent next year, according to DePerrior. He added grade one and two positions do not pay enough to attract workers. DePerrior suggested the grade two positions move to the grade three payscale.

“No employer is able to attract anyone at $14 an hour,” DePerrior said. “We may tweak that, but this is a simpler change as far as shifting the structure and doing away with that entry level grade, which is no longer appropriate based on market conditions and changes to the minimum wage.”

The state’s minimum wage is currently $13.20 an hour, but will incrementally go up every year until reaching $15, according to a state law passed in 2016.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) living wage calculator, the acceptable hourly rate for a single individual with no children in Cortland County is $14.53. That number skyrockets for single parents, who need to earn $28.99-per-hour to make ends meet, according to the MIT living wage study. The calculator factors in the costs of food, child care — if applicable — medical expenses, housing, and transportation. 

There is also an increased rate planned for the highway department, DePerrior said. It is established “in order to attract the individuals necessary to get the job done,” he added.

Highway department employees currently start at grade five (at $15.26 an hour) and can go all the way to grade 26.

Laurie Leonard, the county’s personnel officer, said the proposed changes could prove beneficial.

“The current rate of employee turnover and number of county job vacancies has a significant cost,” she said. “If we could attract and retain employees, these recommendations will (be fiscally responsible and do right by our employees).”

Any changes to the structure will have to be negotiated with members of the respective unions, Leonard said. The current CSEA contract is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2023.

Increases to cost of living, attributed to a variety of factors by national reports which includes inflation, could factor into how often the pay structure is revisited by the county.

“We will negotiate the next contract with these issues in mind,” Leonard said.

For some legislators, addressing salaries has been a known need.  

“(This is) especially for the new employees, whose salaries are below that of surrounding counties and other local businesses,” Harbin said. “The presentation and the details (the Burke Group’s presentation) has demonstrated that very clearly.  We have not done this level of analysis since 2005. I am very encouraged that with this data and given an action plan from our county administrator and personnel director we will be able to right-size our pay structure to help better attract qualified candidates who will stay in public service.”

Corpora said the county will devise a plan to move forward. It will take into account the study from the Burke Group, with recommendations in March or April. That plan will then go to the government operations committee at a later date.