Elkins Council Approves Hourly Employee Compensation Plan
In response to severe shortages in critical roles and difficulty retaining employees in multiple departments, the Elkins Common Council has approved pay increases for most hourly General Fund and Sanitation Fund employees. Council also eliminated the city’s current “step and grade” compensation plan and directed the city’s administrative team to investigate the feasibility of including universal annual cost-of-living increases and flexibility for managers to grant merit-based raises in a new plan in time to be implemented for the fiscal year beginning next July.
The city’s administrative team began work in August to plan a compensation increase for General Fund and Sanitation Fund employees in response to staffing shortages in critical positions, especially in the Street Department.
“The Street Department has three vacancies right now, and if we don’t fill those soon, one issue is that we might not be able to provide the needed training for snowplow operations in case we have a fierce winter this year,” says Mike Kesecker, the city’s operations manager. “The problem we were facing was that entry-level employees in the Street Department were only making around $10 an hour. That is a wage that is very easy for area employers to beat, so it was posing a real obstacle for recruitment.”
To increase the city’s competitiveness with comparable employers, the administrative team first set out to establish a minimum starting wage throughout the General Fund and Sanitation Fund of at least $14 per hour. After employees with the least competitive wages were raised to at least $14 an hour, all hourly wages in the General Fund and Sanitation Fund were also increased in a way that balanced proportionality and sustainability. No increases were included for salaried employees, including administrative officers.
“Because a city government cannot easily create new revenue streams, it was crucial not to implement such a large increase that layoffs might become necessary in another year or so,” says Tracy Judy, the city treasurer.
The plan the team arrived at raises the lowest paid employees—those previously in the $10 an hour range—approximately 35 percent, with a gradually decreasing percentage then applied for employees in each next higher dollar band. The changes approved by council Thursday represent a new annual investment in city employees of around $300,000. This amount was funded partly through renegotiated bank interest rates, partly through the restructuring of a currently vacant position, and partly through the use of funds carried over from the fiscal year that ended June 30.
“We would have loved to give everyone the same percentage increase across the board, but that would have cost upwards of half a million dollars annually, and there was no way the city could have sustained that with the pot of money available to us,” says Judy. “Because the wages of the highest paid hourly employees were already a lot closer to being truly competitive than those at the lower end, the highest paid hourly employees received the smallest percentage increases.”
In addition to granting pay raises to all General Fund and Sanitation Fund employees, administrators recommended eliminating the current step and grade system altogether.
“The consensus was that the current step and grade plan wasn’t flexible enough to both recognize time in service with ongoing guaranteed cost-of-living increases while also enabling administrators to grant merit-based raises to top performers,” says Kesecker. “We really feel these are also crucial pieces for recruitment and retention, so we are hoping to find a way to fold these into a new plan as well.”
The compensation increase council approved Thursday will be applied retroactively starting September 3. This increase only applies to General Fund and Sanitation Fund (garbage collection) employees because those are the only employees over which council has administrative authority. Council has no administrative authority over water and wastewater system employees, whose compensation can only be changed by the Elkins Water Board and Elkins Sanitary Board, respectively.
The increase also does not include firefighters, because their pay is structured so differently from other General Fund employees.
“Although the hourly base rate paid to civil-service firefighters looks low, you have to keep in mind the 24-hour shift cycle at the department,” says Steve Himes, chief of the Elkins Fire Department. “All firefighters work a minimum of 848 hours of scheduled overtime annually, plus 24 hours extra for each holiday. Even a probationary firefighter’s annual compensation is still significantly higher than that which is proposed for General Fund employees, even after the increase.”
In addition to hourly compensation, city employees receive a comprehensive benefits package. This package includes relatively low-cost health insurance (PEIA Plan A currently costs a single adult only around $1,800 a year, with family plans available), $10,000 in life insurance paid for by the city with additional amounts available at employee’s cost, and optional dental, vision, disability, and other forms of coverage. In addition to receiving time off for eleven state holidays, entry level city employees earn two weeks of vacation leave and more than two weeks of sick leave each year.
Thursday’s compensation increase is only the first of several related steps council will need to take over the next months. In addition to—and likely before—implementation of a new compensation and classification system, council must also decide how to address projected large increases in PEIA costs in coming years. After years of remaining flat, municipal PEIA costs are now projected to increase 18 percent in fiscal year 2025, 14.5 percent in fiscal year 2026, and 6 percent in fiscal year 2027. Currently, City of Elkins and its employees share the cost of PEIA premiums.
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