Johnson City Press: Johnson City plans 4% pay scale increase to improve retention
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Johnson City plans 4% pay scale increase to improve retention

David Floyd • May 30, 2019 at 6:01 PM

With the unemployment rate on the decline, the market for job seekers in Tennessee is improving.

And employers like Johnson City are finding that they need to make adjustments.

Johnson City’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year contains a 4% increase in the pay scale for city employees, which City Manager Pete Peterson has said is in direct response to the city’s problems attracting and retaining employees. The increase would result in an approximately $1.3 million bump in expenditures from the general fund, which is the pot of money from which most city departments receive their funding.

The turnover rate at the city was about 8.5% for the first 10 months of fiscal year 2019, says Human Resources Director Steve Willis. It’s a figure he says is not too different from Kingsport, Bristol and other surrounding municipalities.

“I’m in close contact with my counterparts there, and we’re for the most part experiencing the same difficulties,” Willis said. “Number of applicants are down, and the unemployment rate has a huge impact on that.”

Tennessee’s unemployment rate in March 2019 was 3.2%, according to the state department of labor and workforce development, and has been on a steady decline for several years.

Johnson City hired 102 full- and part-time employees during the first 10 months of the fiscal year. Willis said the city hired about 10 of those employees to fill new positions, and “a high percentage” were hired to fill positions opened because of turnover or retirement.

The city has about 900 full- and part-time employees. The organization’s total headcount, however, fluctuates depending on the need for seasonal employees, rising to about 1,100 to 1,150 between spring and fall and dipping to about 900 to 950 in the winter, Willis said.

When people leave the organization, Willis said their reasons tend to vary.

“There’s really not one underlying theme,” Willis said. “It’s a variety of reasons, and with unemployment statewide hovering at 3-3.5%, there’s plenty of opportunity out there if you want to bounce.”

Willis said opportunities are especially prevalent for employees with commercial drivers licenses. The city experiences higher turnover in its transit and solid waste departments, which require new hires to have a CDL. 

“A lot of folks are hiring over-the-road truck drivers right now, so our employees come with CDLs in hand and are very marketable to private industry,” Willis said.

Similar to what the city is doing with its planned 4% pay scale increase — which is in addition to another 4% increase commissioners approved during the budget planning process for the current fiscal year — Willis said many private companies are raising pay rates to attract employees.

Unlike municipalities like Johnson City, however, these companies can approve pay increases with a greater degree of flexibility.

“They may be able to turn on a dime if they’re struggling in one particular area and say, ‘Oh let’s raise that rate two bucks on an hour and get folks in here,’” Willis said.

Openings at JCPD

Out of 153 sworn positions, the Johnson City Police Department is currently down about 10 employees, most of them in the patrol division. 

“I don’t know if it’s a problem, but it’s definitely an area of concern,” said Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner. The department generally has 110 officers or more working in its patrol division.

The hiring process for new officers is lengthy. New officers spend nine weeks at the police academy and at least another four to five months in training. “To get an officer hired and to the road is quite an amount of time,” Turner said.

The city pays trainees a roughly $34,000 salary while they’re at the police academy and covers the approximate $4,500 cost of their education. Turner said it’s uncommon for an officer to go through training and leave after staying on the force for only a short period of time.

“It’s the exception and not the rule,” Turner said. “We have very few who will leave after just a small amount of time. Usually, they’re here five or six years.”

The openings in patrol don’t have an impact on the department’s quality of service, Turner said. “We’ve always got to have officers out there to answer calls for service,” he said. “That’s really the backbone of the police department.” 

But he said they do affect the department’s ability proactively address its goals. “If I’ve got people working patrols, then I might not have that extra officer to specifically work drug crimes,” Turner said.

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