‘Money is a driver’: Amid inflation and tight labor market, city fighting to stem employee outflow

Concord City Hall

Concord City Hall

By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN

Monitor staff

Published: 04-17-2024 5:13 PM

Modified: 04-17-2024 5:19 PM


In another move to stem the flow of city employee turnover, Concord city councilors approved a package of increased leave and other perks last week. 

Previous efforts — including bonuses and a temporary increase in overtime pay for police, weekly cash stipends for plow drivers, referral bonuses, shortening the period before benefits start, paid family and medical leave and a flexible work policy — have had moderate success,  city department heads said. The 18% turnover rate across all departments last year has improved to about 16.5%, according to Director of Human Resources and Labor Relations Jennifer Johnston. But that’s still a far cry from the 5% turnover rate pre-pandemic. 

The city established a recruitment and retention committee comprised of city employees two years ago — it developed and recommended this package. The current budget, approved last June, included $80,000 for a long-discussed class and compensation study to measure Concord’s competitiveness as an employer. Requests for proposals from vendors had a mid-April deadline.

While each city department is facing its own unique pressures — from Felony First and bail reform adding to the workload of city prosecutors to the rising dominance of high-paying travel nursing programs in healthcare — the effectiveness of larger and more accessible benefits that the public sector has historically relied on to attract employees is limited in the face of inflation and a competitive labor market that champion cash. 

“There are things we're trying to do to mitigate loss because we don't pay as well as the private sector,” Johnston said. “But when inflation is as high as it is, money is a driver.”

Police

A half-million dollars in additional police funding approved by city council last fall increased overtime pay from time-and-a-half to double-time and provided each officer who stayed on staff through April 6 with a $5,000 bonus. 

As true with all emergency services, Concord aims not to leave shifts empty when it is short-staffed or someone is away. When necessary, the department has to force officers to work overtime. Not only does that have limits — people are only capable of working so many hours — but it reduces the department’s space for promotions that would pull officers from regular patrol, Chief Bradley Osgood said. The effect can mean more officers seek work elsewhere.

While the new program did not directly bring in more officers, in the last six months more are volunteering for overtime shifts instead of being assigned to them and fewer officers left, according to Osgood.

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“The overtime piece was a tremendous success because it allowed us to fill an adequate number of shifts without forcing people … because of that incentive,” he said. And officers have continued to volunteer for them even after the double-time pay sunsetted — it was extended from December to February.

Over the six months of that program, five officers left the department, two of whom left for other departments and one left police work altogether, Osgood said. In the same six months last year, from October 2022 to April 2023, 11 officers left Concord, seven to other departments and four leaving the field. Some, but not all, departing officers leave for larger departments such as Nashua or the State Police. Other reasons for departure include retirements, a termination and, increasingly, Osgood said, people who choose not to complete academy and training work.

Of the 90 Concord Police positions, about 45 are strictly assigned to patrol. At a low point last year, there were only 29 patrol officers, according to Osgood. While there are still 13 vacancies department-wide — including a domestic violence officer, community resource officers, a traffic enforcement officer and positions in the criminal investigative, computer crimes and youth services positions units — eight new patrol officers were hired last summer and began solo patrols in March. They were among the officers who received $5,000 bonuses in the mail last week. 

“That’s kind of a relief valve,” Osgood said. “But they’re still down.”

This two-part retention program was pitched last fall as a temporary measure to break the departure cycle. Given its apparent effectiveness, Osgood said, the department has requested that the retention bonus portion of the program be continued in next year’s city budget. Bonuses made up the vast majority of the $505,000 that went into the program last fall. 

Fire

Before the pandemic, it was relatively common for the fire department to have no annual turnover outside a few retirements. In the past two-and-a-half years, Chief John Chisholm said, it has had to fill more than 30 vacancies, many of which were the same positions, where an employee stayed for less than a year. 

As its shortages, especially among paramedics, reached a dire level, the department formed an internal committee to address the issue prior to the city doing so. 

Under the demands of healthcare work initiated by the pandemic as well as changing mindsets around work and a highly competitive employment landscape, more paramedics, who have the highest level of medical certification in a fire department, and young EMTs are opting for healthcare work with a more stable schedule and better pay. 

The department is currently down five paramedics — more than an entire shift — alongside two firefighter/EMT vacancies and a needed replacement for a dispatcher who was promoted.

“If there's an empty seat on one of the trucks, we have to fill that — you just don't shut the truck down,” Chisholm said. As with police, it means people are often forced into overtime. And, especially for younger hires, “That work-life balance is an extraordinarily important thing. It’s about access to improvements and training; people aren't just looking to punch a clock and work as much as they can.” 

Several paramedics  have left to pursue nursing careers. Not only do travel nursing programs, increasingly dominant in private sector healthcare, pay at a premium but there is also less schedule strain — at least, in relation to emergency services. 

“The stress and the toll is a real thing,” Chisholm said. One Concord paramedic, he said, left the medical field and now is doing utility pole work. 

The internal committee heard that many paramedics want to expand their skills by spending more time out of ambulances and on fire teams, and that ambition has been a motivator for more than one who left for another department, Chisholm said. But meeting that desire is much harder when there are barely enough paramedics to fill ambulances.

Bolstering training and benefits have had some successes among firefighters, though, especially the city’s family and medical leave program. Three newly-hired firefighters were able to access time off early on in their employment to bond with their newborns — indicating it was a draw to Concord, according to Johnston. The fire department is the highest utilizer of that benefit.

Chisholm said he is currently developing other proposals aimed at addressing the critically low paramedic numbers that he hopes to launch later this year. 

General Services

In other city departments, from plow drivers in public works to code enforcers to city prosecutors, regulation changes and reforms have added to their workload or shrunk the pool of applicants, and higher paying private sector employment maintains its pull. 

After a sharp outflow of winter operations employees — especially those with commercial drivers licenses —  the council approved $385,000 towards a $300-per-week bonus stipend for plow drivers and $150 per week for supporting “wingers” in December. Showing some effectiveness, according to a report from Johnston, there is now only one vacancy among commercially licensed driver positions, with 15 such employees.

Filling those positions has gotten increasingly difficult, Johnston added, because of new federal regulations adding a national drug testing history database for CDL drivers and upping the required amount of entry-level training for drivers. Johnston emphasized that those reforms improve safety, but as byproducts, reduce the pool of applicants and increase the amount of money to onboard new drivers. 

The city prosecutor’s office also saw significant turnover in the last year. The opioid epidemic, bail reforms and repeal of Felonies First — which had bypassed circuit court in felony cases, decreasing the amount of time in court — all combined to dramatically increase the workload of local prosecutors, Johnston said. 

“We have seen turnover at the prosecutor level with people leaving that office because of the volume of work that those prosecutors have to turn through,” she said. Court backups caused by the pandemic only accelerated the issue. Those leaving the office, according to Johnston, went to places with more manageable case volumes. 

The Community Development office, which encompasses code administration, planning, engineering and economic development, has also been hit hard by turnover — almost half of the department, including all code inspectors, have been with the city for less than a year. 

In addition to private sector work, many of those departures were related to retirements, Johnston said, as older workers as well as younger generations prioritize more personal and family time. 

Of the measures the city has implemented as a result of the recruitment and retention committee, family leave, access to benefits within a month of hiring and referral bonuses — where a current employee gets a pay off if someone they recruit completes their probationary employment period — have been used the most.

It’s hard to pinpoint whether these efforts are effective, Johnston said. But the extent to which employees are using them the rate of turnover, especially among first-year employees, are key indicators. Prior to these programs, first-year turnover hit 60%, she said. It is now around 20%. 

There are other things Johnston noted that the city could take on: bringing in more professionalized recruiting, making some cultural changes on how decisions are made and communicated within department hierarchies, and continuing diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and belonging efforts. 

While continuing to look for ways to attract applicants and to encourage current staff to stick around — which each carry their own financial costs — reprieve in a strapped labor market does not appear on the horizon. 

“Where did all the employees go that used to fill jobs?” Johnston said. “For that I don't have an answer.”