Employment crisis hits the Port City, staffing shortages put strain on first responders

In total, according to the latest numbers from the City of Wilmington, there are 132 vacancies across all departments
Published: Apr. 7, 2022 at 2:39 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The staffing shortages facing the country are not limited to retail workers and people in the hospitality industry, virtually all industries have been affected by it — and that includes local governments. In Wilmington, the City is struggling with hiring and retaining employees, leaving City Council searching for solutions.

On Tuesday, City Council took a big step in addressing one of the main issues affecting turnover rates by addressing pay and approving $1.3 million for pay increases across the city.

Staffing in departments across the board is down, and turnover by the end of Fiscal Year 2022 (which starts July 1), is expected to be around 18%. For comparison, 2021 saw a 15.5% turnover, while 2020 had just 10.9%. Another indicator of just how difficult things are in terms of employment rates in the City: there are more people leaving the City of Wilmington than are being hired. In 2021, the City hired 156 employees, but had 196 terminations.

In total, according to the latest numbers from the City of Wilmington, there are 132 vacancies across all departments.

“We have record high turnover over the last five years — our turnover is about 15.5%. We have high turnover in a lot of our police, public services, trade fields. So we’ve been struggling in those,” said Assistant HR Director for City of Wilmington Clayton Roberts.

That’s something City Council wants to change.

Councilman Luke Waddell says ensuring the City has enough staff and meets the needs of residents is, in his opinion, among the most important things he does as a councilman.

“I have one main job on City Council and as a councilor for the City of Wilmington, and that’s to make sure that we are providing core services: fire, public safety, police, and [a] clean place to live,” he said.

It’s not just public safety employees facing lower-than-average wages.

“Fire, police and regular non-exempt (hourly) wage scales have remained the same since 2018. Regular exempt (salary) wage scales have remained the same since 2015. Employees have received merit but nothing to keep up with the increasing inflation,” according to a budget presentation.

When other government agencies are offering higher wages, it creates problems for the City.

“Our pay ranges have fallen behind the market: Firefighter grades on average are 14% below market; police grades on average are 13% below market; hourly grades on average are 9% below market; salaried grades on average are 8% below market,” according to the presentation.

Although the shortages are across the City, there are some departments facing higher turnover compared with others. One of the biggest shortages is in the Wilmington Police Department.

That poses a problem, not only for police officers, but for residents as well.

“Residents should absolutely be concerned about this, because the services we provide are critical, especially when you have hurricanes, winter weather events. Our employees are the ones that respond and get the community back and running,” Roberts said

Public safety agencies hit hard

Right now the Wilmington Police Department has around 32 open positions, but according to Chief Donny Williams, that number is likely closer to 50 when you take into account those out on leave or in training.

“This is high, we’ve seen this number before, but it’s very rare that we are down 50 vacancies, this is detrimental,” Williams said at a City Council budget hearing.

WECT had an interview scheduled with the WPD’s recruiting officer regarding this story; however, it was canceled 30 minutes before it was set to take place. A department spokesperson said it was canceled due to a shooting that took place earlier in the week.

However, Wilmington Fire Chief Steve Mason was willing to speak about the issues that affect not only police, but all first responders.

“The citizens, you know, come to expect — I believe that they expect the best out of their public safety and that’s what we provide. When we’re not able to staff our units, fill our stations, we can’t meet that obligation,” Mason said.

From pulling extra shifts and stacking overtime, the stress of the job along with the relatively low pay is taking a toll on officers and firefighters.

“They’re resilient, but it’s starting to catch up to them, they’re starting to breakdown; they can’t do this but for so long,” Williams told Council.

That, in turn, can have an impact on residents of Wilmington who rely on police officers to protect their community. Fewer officers and firefighters to fill shifts means more work for everyone, even though Mason said the City’s fire department can currently meet its staffing needs with overtime.

“One of the things that we did back in the fall or summer is we created a scheduled overtime list which is something we have not done in well over 20 years,” he said.

When asked about the comparison to other departments across the state, Williams said there were other departments with higher unemployment as well as some with lower, but those with lower unemployment are often smaller departments.

The reasoning for that, Williams said is it comes down to the job being easier in smaller communities, and they’re paying better.

“Our recruiters went to two recruiting events here in the past month or so, and we were the lowest agency there that was offering salaries for police officers,” he said.

Another problem facing both departments is the number of recruits using the City to get their training and go through Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) or firefighter training, and then leaving the departments.

Williams gave an example of an officer who did just that recently.

“You just invested in a police officer that we hired in July. We sent her to BLET, she graduated BLET, she was sworn in in January, I was so proud; she’s already resigned and gone to work for a federal agency, so we’ve wasted all that money,” he said.

It’s not cheap to train an officer either, Williams said it’s roughly $40,000-50,000.

That training is intensive and according to Councilman Luke Waddell, it’s some of the best in the state.

“We provide some of the best training, both in the fire department and the police department, in the in the entire region,” Waddell said.

That training makes firefighters and police officers more attractive to smaller agencies who might not be able to afford it.

“That’s [the training] a big deal, and so that speaks to the training that we do for these folks. That makes them easy targets for other municipalities to say, ‘hey, come work for us, we’ll pay, you know, a small percentage more,’” he said.

It’s an issue the fire department is seeing as well.

“There’s a lot of smaller fire departments in our region that can essentially offer our folks a few more thousand a year, and they will go to work for them. And they’re getting a good deal, because they didn’t have to train them, they didn’t essentially even have to vet them, we did all of that for them,” Mason said.

Officers leaving the city for other opportunities after receiving training is not a new problem for the City. Councilman Charlie Rivenbark said it’s an issue he wants to address. One idea was the possibility of requiring officers who are trained by the city to agree to a contract that states if the City pays for them to be trained, they have to stay a certain number of years.

While council members were receptive to discussing the idea, Councilman Waddell said he hopes that by offering better pay and incentives, that won’t be necessary.

“They [council] tossed around a few different ideas on things that would incentivize folks to stay at least for a year or two so we can kind of get that training back. You don’t ever want to shackle somebody to a position but that is something that has been discussed. And I think we can utilize free market principles and paying the folks the right amount, you don’t need that, but that is being looked into,” he said.

With the $1.3 million pay increase, Mason is hopeful the City can continue to attract new recruits and in turn, keep them on board for the long haul.

“I certainly believe that this will help drastically, help our retention and recruitment capabilities,” he said.

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