04/25/07 — Health Department officials concerned about maintaining staffing levels

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Health Department officials concerned about maintaining staffing levels

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 25, 2007 1:46 PM

Retaining employees in the Health Department is a growing concern, prompting officials to consider whether salary incentives are the answer.

Kevin Whitley, director of environmental health, said turnover in his department is an ongoing problem.

"Over the last two years we have had five environmental health specialists leave to go to Johnston County. Some have been here only a year, some five to eight years," he said. "The counties we're competing with pay about $5,000 more a year to do the same job, plus benefits.

"When we hire environmental health specialists, you have to hire interns straight out of school. When you hire someone, you're looking at six to seven months to get them trained."

That equates to at least $15,000 of the salary going toward training, he added. Not to mention that during the training period, other employees are forced to juggle.

"To cover for people, constantly training, it's a grind," Whitley said.

Although cross-training fellow employees has proved helpful, it still sets back productivity, he explained.

"It just takes awhile to get some experience so that they can go out and do what someone else does with two to three years' experience," he said.

In the last year, turnover for on-site workers in environmental health has been 100 percent, said Ken Stern, administrative officer for the Health Department. In exit interviews, Whitley said the primary reason given has been salary.

There is always the option to "bump up the starting salary," he said, but noted there is a downside, namely not making similar adjustments to reward loyal employees.

"I understand we're not going to be able to compete with Johnston County, but if we could just get close enough where it wouldn't be so attractive to go," Whitley said that would be helpful.

Unfortunately, the situation is not an isolated one, he pointed out.

"I know we're not the only department having problems competing with other counties for qualified staff," Whitley said.

According to Health Director James Roosen, there has been a 20 percent turnover in the Health Department this year.

"It gets expensive. It's kind of a systemic problem," he said.

Roosen said efforts are being made to retain good employees. There has also been discussion with County Manager Lee Smith, including possible funding options. Should one of those be increasing salaries, however, the funding source is in question, Roosen said.

He recently asked the Board of Health which option should be pursued -- increasing funds or looking at tax dollars.

Dr. Michael Gooden, a board member, suggested that less money be spent on hiring and instead go toward encouraging retention.

"It seems to me a whole lot easier to pay somebody than spend your money training them," he said. To do otherwise, he noted, is "almost being pennywise and pound foolish.

"I think we're all in favor of supporting a program to keep and retain good people and I think what we need is something solid. Let's fix it."

He would favor asking the county to help, Gooden said.

"We need to do what we can, no doubt about it," said board member Efton Sager, who is also a county commissioner.

Whitley said he is only seeking what is fair in a competitive market.

"We're just asking for something comparable," he said.

"It's a false economy to try to keep somebody here with a low economy," Roosen said. "Kevin has done a good job of recruiting and hiring folks, but the other side of the coin is you have got to pay them enough so they don't want to go anywhere else."

The problem is hauntingly familiar, said board member Donna Edmundson, recalling a similar message when she joined the board 11 years ago.

"This is déja vu. For the first year I was on the board ... I was getting calls at home from contractors and people like that because they were so behind on septic tank permits, that they were calling the Board of Health," she said. "This problem can become a major problem for us as a board of health."

She said it became critical, with the Health Department "getting them to a point where they were productive almost and the other counties very close to us were just grabbing them up. ... We had to do something."

Roosen said he will continue investigating possible solutions to the problem.