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St. Louis County ready for hiring spree

John Myers

Forum News Service

St. Louis County is going on a hiring spree in the coming months to fill short-staffed departments, where employee workloads have doubled in some cases and "near constant turnover'' leaves approved positions unfilled.

County commissioners meeting in Hibbing today are expected to approve 20 new Child Protection Department positions, five welfare caseworkers and seven new sheriff's deputies.

County officials say the new positions are a concession that the county is short-staffed in those areas, often unable to fill positions as fast as they turn over.

For example, the Public Health and Social Services Department currently has authorization for 117 income maintenance (welfare) workers. But only 87 positions are actually filled — nine fewer people actually on the job than a decade ago — and seven of the current people are trainees, unable to handle a full caseload on their own.

At the same time the total number of income maintenance cases handled has shot up from about 19,000 in 2006 to more than 32,500 this year, a 70 percent increase.

The average number of cases handled by each worker has more than doubled, from 184 in 2006 to 406 in 2016, according to data provided by county administrators to county commissioners in advance of today's vote.

"While St. Louis County caseloads are above Minnesota averages, the most pressing issue facing their class of employee is to get ahead of the near-constant turnover in this" position, county administrators concluded in their report to the board.

The high rate of turnover means that even as new employees are brought on, they aren't coming on fast enough to make up for people who quit, retirements, transfers and promotions. By adding more pre-approved positions, it's hoped more people can be hired and close that attrition gap.

"The Department has concluded that 5 additional FTEs authorized should enable the department to extend more job offers and move those additional candidates through the onboarding process,'' administrators wrote to the board.

Because the budget already accounts for 117 people on the job, the addition of new approved positions above the current 87 on the job isn't expected to add any extra cost to the budget since it's unlikely the county would ever get to 117 people actually working anytime soon.

The hiring spurt comes after several county officials in recent years have taken pride in what they have called "rightsizing" of the county's employment base, applauding as the number of county workers dropped from 2,224 full-time equivalents in 2006 to 1,787 today — a drop of 437 positions, said Jim Gottschald, the county's human resources director. (About 220 of those in 2006 were at the Chris Jensen nursing facility, formerly county-owned and now operated by a private company.)

More child protection workers

As first reported by the News Tribune last week, the Social Services Department also is asking for 20 new child protection positions to help battle against "an alarming increased rate of maltreatment reports and cases" for children in danger.

Some 800 children are now in the county's care because of unsafe conditions in their homes or families.

The new positions — 16 staff and four supervisors — will be funded this year from a new bag of money from the state approved in 2015, although the positions will add about $783,000 to the levy-funded budget for 2017 and beyond. The levy is the part of the county budget paid for by property taxes.

The county could have been eligible for three additional state-funded positions but has been unable to meet state goals for reducing caseloads and handling child cases in a timely fashion.

In some Social Services cases, the county has been unable to keep up with paperwork, unable to document all their cases and thus unable to receive state reimbursement, leaving money on the table.

20,000 hours of jail overtime

The Sheriff's Office is asking for five new corrections deputies for the county jail where nearly $20,000 of overtime is being paid out annually, according to a county study.

Because of turnover and a lengthy training process, the St. Louis County Jail in Duluth is often short-staffed.

"Because of this extensive onboarding (training) process and normal attrition, the largest jail facility located in the southern portion of the county is rarely operating at its authorized staffing complement," administrators wrote to the board.

That spurs both forced and voluntary overtime — an average of 19,730 hours annually in each of the last two years at the jail — which now has authorization for nearly 60 staff. That overtime load is the equivalent of 9.5 full time employees working 40-hour shifts.

Sheriff Ross Litman, in his request to the County Board, said hiring the five new jail positions will actually save the county nearly $53,000 annually.

Litman told the News Tribune that many counties are going through similar problems. He said the long training time needed for new employees to become independent workers, coupled with the demanding nature of the jobs, has created the big gaps. Officers in training can't be counted toward fulfilling state staffing levels, he noted.

Litman said the county has done detailed comparison and that the problem is not rooted in lower pay and benefits for entry-level corrections positions.

St. Louis County's corrections deputies "are positioned above the median" in pay, Litman said. Instead, Litman said stringent state staffing rules coupled with retirements, corrections officers moving on to other careers, transferring to patrol deputy status, vacations, comp time, military leave (such as for National Guard members) and workers' compensation leaves for job-related injuries and physical restrictions all contribute to the overtime burden.

"Our training for new staff is very extensive and it takes upwards of a year to complete,'' Litman said. "Some (trainees) do not make it and some folks realize after being with us for a while that it's not what they expected."

New deputies in schools

The sheriff also is asking the County Board for two school resource officer positions for deputies assigned to specific schools. The officers would be working with the Cherry, South Ridge, Northwoods and Tower-Soudan schools in Independent School District 2142.

"The project goals are to reduce juvenile crime, juvenile crime prevention and school emergency preparedness," county administrators said in their request to the board.

The school positions would work recreation enforcement during summer months, such as ATV and water patrols.

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