Durham County plans to give more money to paramedics and detention officers after a compensation study showed they’re making less than their peers.
The study, conducted over the past year, found that Durham County paramedics on average make 2.47 percent less than at other departments studied, although the starting salary is 11.33 percent below the market average. Detention officers earn an average of 6.09 percent less than their peers, according to information Human Resources staff presented to the Durham County Board of Commissioners on Monday.
The study compared Durham County’s pay to fourteen other county and municipal departments in the state. While the county’s compensation plan was last redone in 2014, other nearby jurisdictions, like the the city of Durham, have recently upped pay for public safety employees. County commissioners already approved $800,000 to finance the study and address its recommendations in the 2016-2017 budget.
The compensation study was prompted by concerns from Durham’s sheriff and EMS director about recruiting and retaining detention officers and paramedics. From July 2011 to June 2016, 152 employees left the county EMS department for various reasons. In the same time period, one hundred detention officers left their jobs.
County officials are hoping that higher pay will help attract more paramedics and detention officers and encourage them to stay with the county. Both departments are having a hard time making new hires and are losing employees to nearby jurisdictions where they can earn more money or work less.
County Manager Wendell Davis said while both are “hard to fill positions,” departments nationwide are struggling to keep paramedics.
“When you come to Durham and you get on an ambulance, you’re going to work all day,” he said. “You’re going to get on the ambulance and if you leave your lunch at the station, there’s a good possibility you may or may not eat that day … if you can make the same money and go to an adjacent rural county and run two calls a day, life is a lot less stressful.”
In addition to adjusting the pay schedule for detention officers and paramedics, the county plans to introduce a Specialized Entry Rate, which offers a base salary for qualified detention officers and paramedics categorized as EMS Officer 1. Detention officers who come to the county fully-qualified for that role would earn a starting salary of $34,000. The entry rate for EMS Officer 1 will be $36,000. Trainees would not meet all of the qualifications for these positions, so they would not get the entry rate until they are trained.
County staff are also looking at the effects of implementing a $15 per hour minimum wage in January. Anthony Noel, human resources manager, said everyone who earned less than that got a pay raise, while those at $15 per hour or above did not. This has placed employees with different qualifications at near or the same pay grade, which is causing some tension.
The pay range for paramedics would go from a minimum of $32,210 to $35,431 and from a maximum of $57,987 to $63,776.
The county will also offer bonus payments for the EMS Officer 1 and detention officer roles if they stay on with the county for at least three years. After three years, officers hired after the implementation of the new pay plan would get a one-time bonus of $1,000. After five years, they would get $1,500.
It would cost $414,464 annually to implement these changes for 194 detention officer positions. Currently, the county employees 96 detention officers. For paramedics, the adjustment would cost $456,437 for 99 positions, 76 of which are currently filled. Jodi Miller, general manager, said ideally the adjustments would help fill some of the vacant jobs already authorized by the county budget
Commissioners asked staff to come back with more information about where departing public safety employees go after leaving Durham County and how much the county is spending to train public safety employees that don’t stay with the county. Noel said it takes about six months to train a paramedic once hired and six weeks to train detention officers.
For the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget, county staff will do a pay study for sheriff’s deputies. According to county staff, 23 percent of Durham County law enforcement officers are eligible for retirement in the next five years.