Staff are a Significant Part of the Equation
COOK COUNTY, MINNESOTA - March 6, , 2019 (LSN) Qualified staff are necessary to deliver the vast array of services that citizens depend on and expect from their County. Staff costs (wages and benefits) make up half of the County’s operating budget.
In 2016, for the first time in at least thirty years and at the request of several employee groups, the County contracted with Keystone Consulting to conduct a Compensation and Classification Study. The purpose of the study was to assess the County’s job classification system and employee compensation. The goal of the study was to create a fair and competitive compensation system to make sure that Cook County could attract and retain high quality employees to provide public service.
The study used a 20-county peer group of the smallest counties in the State, by both population and by budget. Compared to this group, the study revealed that Cook County paid its employees at 90% of the median for the group – or 10% less than the median pay of the peer group studied.
Positions Difficult to Fill
One question that prospective employees often ask is, “Why would I work for one organization and get paid less, when the same job pays and offers more elsewhere?” Similarly, employers are asking, “how do we attract well-qualified, loyal people that will serve the community and contribute to a high quality of life?”
Recruitment is not always easy. For example, Cook County could not find an Engineer. Cook County wages for the advertised position were $10,000 less than other counties actively recruiting. Searches in other departments have returned no applicants. We have also had difficulty filling Engineering Technician positions, social workers, and other positions. Considerations like cost of living, availability of housing, and access to child care also contribute to challenges with staff recruitment and retention.
Wages Up, Compensation Balanced
The employee contracts unanimously approved in 2017, adopted the results of the Keystone Study. In addition to a levelling of wages with similarly situated communities, implementation of the Keystone Classification in the 2018-2020 employee contracts achieved two key results:
- Consolidation of eight wages scales into a single wage scale, and
- A significant increase in the employee participation and contribution to their health insurance. Employees now contribute 20% towards health insurance premiums (or $335/month up from $100/month in 2016, and up from $0 employee contribution in prior years).
The contracts resulted in a significant wage increase. A large portion of which was offset by an increase in staff contributions toward their health insurance.
With wages increasing at 1-4% annually in recent years and health insurance premium increases varying from 6-26%, it will only be a short time before this change in compensation strategy provides budget relief.
Despite the significant wage increase (balanced against employee contribution), County wages have only increased to 100% of the weighted average for Northeastern MN Counties. Some positions are still lower than the regional average.
Other Greater Northern Minnesota Comparators
St. Louis County, which includes communities like Duluth and Hibbing as well as Orr, Ely and up to the Canadian border, is also often used as a comparator and is a competitor for people searching for employment and where to settle. Suggestions that it is inappropriate to compare wages in Cook County to wages in St. Louis County seem to make sense, until you take a closer look at the numbers. According to the 2010 census the median family income in St. Louis County is $47,134 while the median family income in Cook County is $47,132. Poverty statistics are similar, with approximately 10% below the poverty line in Cook County and 12% below the poverty line in St. Louis County. One financial burden on residents that is significantly higher in Cook County than St. Louis County is the cost of housing. The average home price in St. Louis County is $143,200 while the average home price in Cook County is $242,200. Cook County may only have a population of 5,200 compared to the 200,000 for St. Louis County, but we are still required to provide the same programs and services along with the infrastructure that will support a significant boost in population during the busiest periods of the tourist season.
Reports related to staff costs and management for the County such as employee contracts, benefits summaries and the wage scale are all available for citizen review on the County website at www.co.cook.mn.us/hr.
Job opportunities and online applications are also posted in this area of the website. Cook County often has employment opportunities and is always seeking to attract qualified, motivated staff. If you or someone you know wants to join the Cook County team, apply online today.
By Jeff Cadwell, Cook County Administrator
County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service