Study highlights wage gap for Elkhart County government workers

A new study shows that Elkhart County government workers earn less than employees in the private sector and staff in other Indiana county governments.

Posted on Feb. 19, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Feb. 19, 2013 at 4:04 p.m.

GOSHEN — A month rarely goes by that Elkhart County’s elected officials do not hear from department heads about employees leaving for other jobs or requests for higher pay for their staff.

It turns out there might be a reason for that.

A new wages and benefits study reveals that Elkhart County government workers earn less than employees who have similar jobs in the private sector and their counterparts working in other Indiana county governments.

“For instance with secretaries, the other counties were 17 percent higher and the private businesses were 11 percent higher than what we pay here, and that was the theme throughout,” said Carol Caviness, human resources director for Elkhart County. “Attorneys in the public sector are paid 10 percent higher, and in the private sector, they’re 22 percent higher. We kind of saw that pattern pretty much all the way through.”

The county’s human resources department teamed up with the county prosecutor’s office late last year to collect data from private companies as well as nearby areas and other counties in Indiana with similar populations.

Caviness estimated that the average annual salary for an Elkhart County government employee is roughly $30,500.

“We have a large number of employees in the $20,000 amounts, and then we’ve got a certain number in the $40,000 and $50,000 range,” she said.

As part of the study, slightly more than 40 percent of the county’s staff responded to a job satisfaction questionnaire. Caviness said the respondents represented a broad cross section of employees.

“It was really interesting to see the results, and it just reinforces what I’ve always heard,” Caviness said. “Sometimes it’s not just cash and benefits that people want. One of the highest things that they rated that they liked about working for Elkhart County was satisfaction and fulfillment from their jobs, so I thought that was pretty telling. The thing they liked least goes back to the benefits and salaries because there, we had 50 percent of those people who said they didn’t like their pay.”

Caviness said Elkhart County seems to offer benefits similar to other counties.

“Most of the counties provide health insurance and pension,” she said. “We have a high deductible plan with a health savings account. There has been some movement to that among the other counties, and in the private sector that’s really where they’re going now. We were low on our holidays. Vacation and sick days appeared to be pretty similar, although we do have a more generous sick leave policy.”

The county has about 850 employees and another 50 unfilled positions, Caviness said. Members of the Elkhart County Council have recently discussed how to shrink staff to save money without having to lay off workers. John Letherman, council president, said attrition might be one answer. As people retire or leave for other jobs, their positions would be frozen. Nine percent of Elkhart County government employees retired or left their jobs on their own accord in 2012.

Letherman said he was not surprised by the study’s results, noting the county’s financial constraints. But, he said, pay raises will not be feasible unless there are fewer employees on staff.

“The problem that we have here is that we’re not keeping up with the private sector pay because we just don’t have any money,” he said. “We’re going to have to cut staff, not grant raises. The only way to grant these kind of raises would be for us to let some people go and then take any money we save and divvy it up among the people who are still here.”

The salary and benefits study will likely be a big part of discussions over the next few months as the county council prepares to plan its budget for 2014.

“It’s going to be a difficult balancing act with the information and knowledge that we have about what kinds of funding is going to be available in the next year or so,” county councilman Randy Yohn said. “It’s going to have to be a balancing act to figure out what we can do with employees now, and I think this information is going to be put to use further down the line as we start to pull out of this recession.”

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