UPDATE: City council unanimously voted Apr. 5 to approve the proposed raises for all city employees.
WILMINGTON — The recurring message from human resources during city council’s budget work session Friday was more pay is needed to retain staff.
The City of Wilmington is on trend to beat last year’s turnover rate, 15.5% — the greatest it’s been over the last five years. For the first half of fiscal year 2022, the rate at which employees are leaving is 9.35%. If circumstances continue as is, it could easily grow to 18% by the end of 2022, according to human resources assistant director Clayton Roberts.
The city has 129 vacancies right now, not including those out on Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which make up another 48 employees.
Results of a salary study comparing the top 10 municipalities in North Carolina, as well as regional districts, revealed the City of Wilmington’s pay ranges have fallen well below market averages, according to Roberts. On average, city employees make 14% less than the average. He added it’s difficult to negotiate with candidates when the pay doesn’t compete with neighboring New Hanover and Brunswick counties or towns such as Leland.
To combat growing vacancies with city staff and also retain qualified employees, council is considering implementing a new pay-scale for its upcoming budget. To ensure all positions meet, or exceed, average market rate, pay would cost the city roughly $7.5 million.
Roberts is proposing a scaled approach to ensure all positions’ pay are bumped up to fall in line with the average. In total, 370 employees are currently below the minimum.
Firefighters are on average 14% below market pay; police and hourly grades average 9% below; and salaried positions average 8% lower than average.
Salaried employees haven’t seen a pay-scale adjustment since 2015; hourly wages increased to at least $15 an hour in January for the first time since 2018.
Exacerbating the issue, inflation is the highest it’s ever been since 1982 at nearly 8% and is continuing to rise, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The majority of the issue is with our front line, boots-on-the-ground men and women and what they do day in and day out directly affecting the city’s ability to fulfill its core services,” council member Luke Waddell said. “We’ve got to fix this before it gets even more out of hand.”
The Wilmington Police Department has the largest void with 35 vacancies. Chief Donny Williams told council members it equates to roughly 50 bodies when accounting for officers injured, in field training or on FMLA.
“Compensation is one of the huge drivers,” Williams told council members. “People can go to work at other cities and be compensated better. And some of it is, folks are getting out of policing due to the things we’ve experienced in the past two years.”
Williams said the WPD attended two recruiting events in the last month and were the lowest-paying agency at both.
According to the city’s job postings, a police trainee’s salary — someone not certified in law enforcement — is listed as $38,984 annually. A certified police officer starts between $38,984 and $46,686.
Right now the department is offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus with 50% paid on the first paycheck and the other half paid after 90 days.
The Town of Leland offers starting pay for certified officers, or those about to be, at $42,486 to $48,449.
Williams said he has 10 officers in the academy right now and 12 in field training. He explained many new hires take advantage of the training offered by and paid for by the city (at roughly $40,000 per hire, according to Williams) and then relocate to neighboring towns offering more pay.
“It seems your smaller agencies are not experiencing the vacancies larger agencies is,” Williams said. “Officers can go to work at smaller agencies and not have to work as hard.”
He said the previous day’s 24-hour time span resulted in 490 calls for police services; more than 300 during the day shift and roughly 170 during the night.
Williams said younger candidates appear uninterested in the deferred compensation or the benefits of retirement pay.
“Younger people are looking for instant gratification,” he said, “not looking to be in this thing for 30 years some of them.” Williams followed with an example of a new hire from July 2021. The city paid to send her to Basic Law Enforcement Training; she was sworn in earlier this year and has already resigned to work with a federal agency.
“So we wasted all that money sending her to BLET and salary and field training,” Williams said.
The Wilmington Fire Department currently has 13 vacancies, but a class of 19 will begin the six-month training academy course at the end of April. Following graduation, they will assume their posts within the department.
Fire chief Mason echoed Williams’ concerns with his crew being able to afford to live in the city. The starting salary for an entry-level firefighter is $35,691, according to the city’s website. The Town of Leland’s current minimum pay for a firefighter is $40,462, according to a town’s spokesperson.
“Starting salaries are the driver of turnover,” Mason iterated.
“That is a very prominent characteristic of those coming into the workforce today, especially at entry level,” city manager Tony Caudle said. “They will leave for 50 cents more.”
Since some neighboring cities don’t have the overhead of training expenses, they can offer higher salaries. “It might even result in quicker movement through the ranks,” Mason said. “We have new pressures on keeping our folks here.”
Mason said to fully equip one new firefighter with uniform and certifications averages $10,000, before roughly 1,000 hours of training.
Council member Charlie Rivenbark chimed in that every year during budget discussions at least one department head steps up to the podium with the same concerns.
“We do market studies, get everyone up to snuff, and they can go here and there and get more money,” he said.
Roberts attributes some of the recent open positions to people making career changes.
“People have been reevaluating their circumstances and priorities and making change,” he said. “This is not just a city of Wilmington problem. Companies are finding it difficult to hire and retain employees everywhere.”
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The Great Resignation” has led to more than 4 million people quitting their jobs nationwide since January; however, the state unemployment rate is back to pre-pandemic levels at 3.9%.
For police and fire departments, staff is recommending adding a trainee and supervisor grade level and increasing the pay range spread. All firefighters then would earn at least $15 per hour or $43,680 per year and police officers would earn $21.18 per hour or $46,257 per year. There would be added compensation based on education.
Council members discussed options of having new hires sign a legally binding contract holding them to a number of years of service in exchange for training. Another idea raised was to have individuals pay a portion of their training up front and get reimbursed over the course of a timeframe, once employed.
Mayor Bill Saffo suggested a hybrid system of allowing employees to decide if they’d prefer benefits packages with deferred retirement pay or money in their current paychecks to be flexible in the current job market. State employees already are forced to pay 6% to the state retirement fund out of each paycheck.
The public services department is short 31 positions; community services is missing 26 and the fire department has 13 vacancies. Departments with eight or less vacancies include finance, city manager, IT, engineering, planning and development, WMPO and city attorney.
“If we get pay where it needs to be,” council member Charlie Rivenbark said, “retention problems will be a lot less than what it is now.”
Roberts is hoping the city will implement these changes prior to fiscal year 2023 budget’s being finalized to combat turnover, or alternatively recommend a retention bonus for current employees.
Following council’s feedback, Roberts said he will finalize the position grades and placements and include the salary adjustment into the budget, which must be approved by council.
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