County approves study of its employee benefits

County approves study of its employee benefits by David Lias A University of South Dakota faculty member has agreed to help study the benefits that Clay County offers its employees.

David Aronson, an assistant professor of political science at USD, agreed Tuesday to conduct the study at the request of the Clay County Commission.

It is hoped that such a study can help both commissioners and county employees gain a better understanding of whether the compensation offered to county employees is fair.

Some ripples of discontent have been detected among the county's work force since earlier this year, when the commission granted pay raises larger than just a cost of living increase to some employees.

Head and part-time jailers' pay was increased, as was the pay for deputies in the county sheriff's department, at a rate requested by Sheriff Dusty Passick. He justified the pay increases by sharing data with the commission that showed that, when compared to similar law enforcement personnel in the state, Clay County's deputies and jailers were underpaid. He also noted that he had the funds in his department's budget to cover the pay raises.

Shortly after news of the pay raises spread, Highway Superintendent Art Leifgen told commissioners that his workers were unhappy that they received smaller pay raises.

Approximately a month ago, the commissioners' chambers were filled with various department heads from throughout the courthouse, who urged the commissioners to consider enacting a pay schedule and wage scale that it could refer to annually when it came time to adjust employees' salaries.

The schedule and wage scale presented to commissioners at that time is designed to help calculate wages of employees that have been on the job for up to a 15 year period.

Commission Chairman Jerry Sommervold told Aronson that he believes county employees should first fill out questionnaires to provide him needed data.

"I think the first step to consider," he said, "is that we need to have all the employees fill out job descriptions ? so that you would know what each one does each day."

Aronson said if the county chose that approach, it would need to look at a wider scope of job responsibilities.

"You have to look at not only what your employees do day after day, but also what their over all job responsibilities are," he said.

Aronson added that a questionnaire doesn't always provide accurate information.

"Some people blow their jobs all out of proportion," he said. "There are others that may hold back information on what they truly do."

Aronson advised the commission that certain fallacies exist around some employment issues, such as years of service. As the discussion continued, and Aronson heard more feedback about the county's situation, discussion turned to fact-finding that may be more productive for the county.

"You're the best judge of what your people do," Aronson said.

"The thing I'd be interested in is what private companies are offering in benefits compared to what we are offering," Commissioner Todd Christensen said.

Aronson said it sounded like the emphasis of a compensation study should perhaps focus on benefits. He said that one way the county can detect if its wage scales aren't competitive is the rate of turnover of its employees.

"An important factor is if you're losing people to the private sector," he said. "If you're losing people, you know something is wrong."

That was the case earlier with the county assistant jailers. Before receiving raises earlier this year, they received $6 per hour. Turnover was high.

County Auditor Ruth Brunick urged the commission to not forget employees who are receiving base pay. If they only can expect small raises based on inflation, they would have to try to hang to their jobs for years before receiving a decent wage.

"It takes us years to train for these jobs," she said.

"We're small enough that each employee has to know a lot of different areas," Christensen said. "We aren't specialized."

"I'm getting the feeling that you don't need a job analysis," Aronson said. "Basically, it boils down to benefits."

Aronson suggested studying county employee benefits first. "We can make some kind of comparison then," he said.

In other action, the commission agreed to designate Byron Bymers and Mike Chaney of Vermillion as agents of record for the county's Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance plan.

Bymers told the commission that Blue Cross/Blue Shield is offering a plan called Blue Select that offers smaller increases in health insurance benefits costs.

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