CNCounty News

Counties get creative to attract workforce in the face of a labor shortage


Key Takeaways

Facing disproportionate labor shortages due to an aging workforce and high burnout rates, counties are getting creative with incentives to recruit and retain staff.

Even with federal support like the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, local government is one of only two sectors — the other being mining and logging — yet to return to pre-pandemic levels of employment, as all other major industry sector employment continues to grow.

Counties of all sizes across the country, including suburban Fairfax County, Va., urban Harris County, Texas and rural San Juan County, Wash., have gotten creative to attract and keep employees in a competitive job market, where the average local government annual wages are nearly 16% lower than in the private sector.

A 32-hour work week in San Juan County

“There’s been no other time in history that employees have had this much power — it’s an incredible shift and it’s taking place all across the nation,” said Angie Baird, San Juan County, Wash.’s director of human resources.

“Employees have more choices today of where they’re going to work and how they’re going to work than at any time in history,” she noted.

“There are a lot of remote options available, there are a lot of benefits that private employers can offer that government just can’t … so we have to think of other ways of, ‘How can we remain competitive and entice people to want to do public service?’”

Last week, San Juan County implemented a 32-hour work week in an effort to fill its 10-15% job vacancy rate and better cater to its current employees.

While the work week is shortening, the pay isn’t. So any county government employees who were previously working a 32-hour work week will now see a bump up in pay as well.

For Stephane Stookey, who was already working a 32-hour work week, that pay increase was incentive enough to stay in her position as lead public health nurse in the county’s Health and Community Services department.

Feeling like she was being priced out of living on the island due to inflation and wanting to raise her daughter closer to her family in Michigan, Stookey said she was heavily debating leaving her county job, but abandoned those plans when she heard that she will receive a pay increase.

“Because the cost of living has skyrocketed so much, what had been a really decent, for public health, job had become me going back to kind of living paycheck to paycheck again,” Stookey said.

“… As my husband and I are searching real estate listings, I heard about the idea … When I realized how much more my income would be — I would essentially be paid to work 40 hours while being able to remain at the 32 hours — that income leap … it just completely like blew all of that out of the water.”

Baird said the weekly schedule structure varies by department, but Stookey said she’s had a lot of flexibility in determining her hours, which she spaces out over three days. Stookey said the ability to have that flexibility is something she thinks will attract younger families to the county, which has an aging population, with about 35% of its residents over the age of 65.  The average across the country is about 16.8%.

“Now that everybody is aware of this, I have heard so much talk about like, ‘Oooh, I think I want a county job now,’” Stookey said.

“For younger families too, like myself, who have young kids, most of our preschool options are limited to three or four hours a day … so the ability to kind of tailor our work schedule around the hours that our kids are in school and be able to be more effective in some work that we do and not be parenting and working at the same time is extremely attractive to a lot of people.”

According to Baird, the average amount of county job applications has increased from one to two a week to 20-26 a week since news of the shortened work week was released.

Low-cost daycare in Fairfax County

In Fairfax County, Va., the county is also lending a hand to employees with young children with its Employees’ Child Care Center, which offers activities and curriculum surrounding the creative arts, math and sciences for the children of county employees.

The cost of lost earnings, productivity and revenue related to a lack of childcare resources adds up to an estimated $122 billion each year, according a report by ReadyNation, a coalition of business leaders. That amount is more than double the amount of $57 billion reported in 2018.

“More people needed it [the Employees’ Child Care Center] during COVID because the daycare systems weren’t around or did not open up — so many of them decided just to close because they couldn’t find teachers to work,” said Fairfax County, Va. Executive Bryan Hill. “And we were able to retain our staff and we grew it going forward, so it was just something that we knew we had to do.”

Fairfax County, which has a 14% vacancy rate in its county positions, also raised wages in July for county employees, averaging about 8%, but at higher rates (13%-20%) for police officers.

“Fair Chance Policy”

Harris County, Texas adopted a Fair Chance Policy last year, removing questions about criminal history from its county job applications.

It was the sixth city or county in the state to adopt the “ban the box” policy.

National Law Review reports that 37 states and more than 150 cities and counties have some form of a ban the box policy.

The policies are designed to ensure that potential employers consider a job candidate’s skills and qualifications first, thereby eliminating any implicit bias or negative implication to his/her application due to a criminal conviction or arrest record. 

As the name suggests, these policies typically eliminate the box (or question) on an employer’s employment application where the applicant must check off whether or not they have a criminal record, according to National Law Review.

The policy also aims to reduce recidivism, giving people with a criminal background a better chance at jobs and helping to fill government positions with qualified candidates.

“At its core, our Fair Chance Policy aims to remove unnecessary barriers to employment for individuals who have made efforts to turn their lives around after involvement with the criminal justice system,” said Pernell Davis, Harris County deputy chief of staff in public safety and organizational development, in a statement to County News.

“It represents a commitment to second chances and recognizes that the mistakes of the past should not define a person’s future,” he noted.

“The mere appearance of a checkbox asking whether someone has ever been arrested can keep strong candidates from completing an application,” he said.

“Even charges resulting in not-guilty verdicts stay on people’s records, causing them to be hesitant about pursuing a job with an organization. Harris County is proud to be a leader in ‘banning the box.’

It’s hard enough to get a good job, so we should not let additional barriers get in the way of people being eligible to work in public service.”

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