From sheriff’s personnel to social workers – Plumas County is losing employees

By Debra Moore

[email protected]

Will anyone answer when you call 911? Will there be anyone to protect the children? Is there a reason that rank and file county employees received a 2.5 percent rate increase while their bosses received a 26 percent pay raise? (UPDATE: Though the supervisors discussed the 26 percent pay raise during interviews for this article, in reality the appointed department heads and elected officials received varying raises. See the complete list at the end of this story.)

After listening to presentations made by Sheriff Todd Johns and several members of the county’s Social Services department during the public comment portion of the Oct. 4 Board of Supervisors meeting, these were just some of the questions raised.

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And even though it was the Sheriff and Social Services personnel speaking out this past Tuesday, they are far from alone. Their concerns about employee pay and benefits have been presented by several other departments — even departments that historically haven’t had staffing issues such as Public Health.

While the issue of pay has been an issue for a long while, it seems to have reached a tipping point that will impact the services available to Plumas County residents. As of this morning, Oct. 6, there were 67 open positions in the county, not including those at the Sheriff’s office.

Sheriff’s Office

According to Sheriff Todd Johns, staffing is reaching such critical levels that deputies are taking shifts in the jail, rather than being out on patrol, and soon, they may be assigned to dispatch.

During an interview Oct. 5, Johns said staffing shortages will impact services to the public. “We will be responding to emergency calls first, and anything that’s not an emergency — vandalism, petty thefts — people will have to wait.” And even emergency situations could be affected as the number of deputies out on patrol are reduced.

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Johns said that the jail will be short 10 correctional officer positions within the week following the resignation of two more staff — one is a sergeant with five years of experience who is going to another county department where they will receive a pay raise and not have to work 12-hour shifts as the correctional officers do; and the other is a correctional officer with four years of experience who is leaving to work for Sierra Pacific, where the pay is roughly the same but the cost of benefits is one-quarter of the county cost.

Employee healthcare insurance is increasing 15 percent and the entire cost is being absorbed by county employees. Johns cited the example of one correctional officer who takes home $2,200 per month, but with the increased medical cost, the take home pay will be reduced to $1,950. Another, who has family medical insurance, will see their take home pay drop from $2,400 to $2,175.  This reduction isn’t unique to the sheriff’s department, it’s being felt across all county departments. (See benefits section below.)

Nor are the issues limited to correctional officers in the Sheriff’s Office, Johns is losing deputies faster than he can replace them (a process that takes at least a year). He currently has eight open positions and has called upon investigators and administrators to cover patrol shifts, and Johns himself has also responded to calls.

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During the Board of Supervisors meeting, Johns made the following statement: “Supervisor Engel once asked my what my biggest fear is. I will tell you now, it is the fine citizens of this county calling dispatch and there is no one there to answer the phone; or there is not a deputy to respond; or that we build a new $25 million jail and I have no correctional officers to staff it.”

During our interview when asked if he could call upon neighboring counties for assistance, he said some have already asked him for assistance. “We are not alone; we are all dealing with the same things right now,” Johns said. For example, Lassen County is short dispatchers; Sierra County needs help placing inmates; and even Shasta County has inquired about jail space.

But Johns doesn’t want to lose personnel to neighboring entities that pay more. He wants the county to reopen negotiations with the sheriff’s employees. When asked what he would like to see for his staff, Johns said he isn’t part of the negotiations process, but he would want to see them receive the same increase as the department heads and have 50 percent of their increased medical costs covered.

Salary and benefits

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Sheriff Johns isn’t alone in his concern over the increased medical costs or salaries, nor is the Board of Supervisors unsympathetic to the employees’ plight. Part of the problem is that members of the board readily confess that they have no idea how much money the county actually has.

Board Chairman Kevin Goss said that acting Auditor Martee Neiman found $800,000 in the system just before the board adopted the 2022-23 budget Sept. 30, and acknowledged more information was being uncovered. Part of the issue is that the county uses two computer systems that don’t interface well.

“It’s a blind-folded dart throw,” Supervisor Greg Hagwood said during an Oct. 5 interview. “Until we get an auditor and the CAO to dive into the books, we don’t know. We have two different operating systems.” (The board is poised to appoint an auditor during its Oct. 11 meeting and the new CAO will begin work full-time in November.)

As for the benefits, Goss said that he is pursuing alternatives to the county’s current plan to see if there are cost savings to be had with other options.

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 Other departments

During the Oct. 4 board meeting, several Social Services employees addressed the board regarding the issue of benefits and salaries.

Child welfare social worker, Ava Hagwood, who is earning a master’s degree in social work said she is one of the lowest paid individuals in the state with her qualifications. “Please increase wages for all employees,” she said. “If funding can be found to increase department heads by 26 percent; funding can be found to increase employees’ pay.”

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on June 14 to grant pay raises to its department heads.

When asked about that decision, Board Chairman Kevin Goss said it was brought to the Board of Supervisors through Human Resources Director Nancy Selvage. He said it partially arose through the elected officials, who were underpaid as compared to their peers, but was extended to all department heads. “It was a little bit more than I anticipated,” Goss said, adding that he wants to be able to provide raises for everyone.

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Ava Hagwood addressed the ability of non-general fund departments to pay their employees more, saying that those bringing in state, federal and grant funds should be paid more.

And indeed, that used to be the case — departments that received their funding from state and federal sources, and weren’t reliant on the county general fund, did offer more competitive salaries.

Supervisor Greg Hagwood (Ava Hagwood’s father) wants to see a return to that practice. He didn’t respond during the board meeting because Ava’s remarks came during public comment, but during our follow-up interview he said, “They’re non general fund departments … they should be allowed to pay their staff what they are able to pay.” Examples of non-general fund departments are Social Services, Public Health, Behavioral Health and Public Works.

He said those departments represent a “sizable percentage of county employees” and if you give those departments the ability to pay competitively, “it solves a sizable measure of the problem.” He added that he spoke publicly about this when he was sheriff.

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Hagwood went on to say that he has talked to the directors of those departments and would like them to do it, but “the board has artificially suppressed wages.” He explained that there was a move from some on the board to ensure equity among employees to avoid “hurt feelings.”

Charles Shramel, another social worker, mentioned the rising cost of health insurance, but he also brought up another topic — the fact that throughout the pandemic, social workers showed up to work every day. They didn’t have the luxury of working from home as did some county employees. (That topic was touched on by Sheriff Johns also, who noted that his staff worked throughout the pandemic, and only recently, were correctional staff even able to remove their masks.)

“Throughout the pandemic we showed up every day,” Schramel said. “Through the Dixie Fire we showed up every day.” Now he is among those looking for new employment because his family relies on the health insurance and the rising costs are too much to absorb.

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According to Ava Hagwood the department doesn’t have “the staffing to meet our needs” currently, without any more individuals leaving. As an example she said that the department used to have two aides, and 10 individuals to supervise visits. Now, the social workers are the ones who take the children for visits to parents, even to other counties. She said that in reviewing a statewide listing of available social services positions, Plumas County has the oldest opening that remains unfilled.

Social worker Beri Allen said, “I get my health insurance through my husband. It doesn’t affect me, but it does affect me when I hear my coworkers crying.” She described people who take home $1,000 per pay period and are now being asked to absorb $200 in health care costs. “Something’s got to give … We should be valued enough to get some hope,” she said.

“We deserve to be taken care of,” said Melissa Smith, the senior child welfare worker in the department. “I love my job; I love my county. I feel the county doesn’t love us back.”

Board Chairman Kevin Goss said he understands the pain of the increases as someone who also has a family plan and will have his insurance premiums increased. “Employees can’t absorb that,” he said and reiterated that he would be looking for options. He also said that the county would be looking at salary issues.

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And, according to the agenda released this morning for next week’s board meeting on Oct. 11, that could be happening. An item is included the closed session portion of the meeting that reads: “Conference with Labor Negotiator regarding employee negotiations: Sheriff’s Administrative Unit; Sheriff’s Department Employees Association; Operating Engineers Local #3; Confidential Employees Unit; Probation; Unrepresented Employees and Appointed Department Heads.”

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