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Douglas County highway staff raise concerns about worker shortages

High turnover in the highway department has workers concerned about those left behind to pick up the slack.

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A Douglas County Highway Department plow clears U.S. Highway 53 of snow near Solon Springs in February 2019. After a 3 a.m. call-out on Wednesday, April 6, highway workers shared their concerns about staffing shortages after another highway worker quit Monday, April 4.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

SUPERIOR — After a 3 a.m. call-out to clear Douglas County highways of fresh-fallen snow, highway workers gathered on Google Meets Wednesday, April 6, to voice their concerns about staffing shortages and substandard wages.

Douglas County wrestles with labor shortage

The county's transportation and infrastructure committee took time to listen to employee concerns after members of the highway department wrote a letter in February highlighting a problem that they say has been years in the making. Douglas County highway workers and mechanics earn significantly less than their counterparts in Carlton and St. Louis counties in Minnesota, the letter said. They earn as much as $5 per hour less than counterparts in the city of Superior.

“We’d like to hear from our employees,” committee chair Nick Baker said. However, he said employees need to understand the county’s situation, as well.

For more than a decade, Douglas County has been under a strict tax levy limit imposed by the state legislature. On an annual basis, the county can only increase its levy based on net new construction as determined by the state.

Last year, the county was only allowed to raise its operating levy by 0.9%, about $180,000 for all county operations, administrator Ann Doucette said. She said Minnesota doesn’t have the same levy restraints, which allows officials there to increase wages when they see fit.

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An across-the-board 2% salary increase that went into effect Jan. 1, will cost the county about $400,000 this year.

“We’re losing employees at a faster rate now than we ever have,” Dan Doolittle, a 20-year veteran of the highway department, said during the meeting. “I don’t know if you know this or not, over the last four years … 21 employees have quit.” He said that figure doesn’t include retirees, and the shortages leave everyone else in the department to pick up the slack.

Thirteen of the people have resigned since March 2021, said Paul Hudacek of the highway department.

“If you look at the longevity list, you look at the upper half of the list, we have been there quite a few years,” Doolittle said. “You look at the lower half of the list and it’s like a revolving door.”

New employees are told what the job is like when they start, Hudacek said, but until they do it, they just don’t understand how tough it is.

“We’re married to that job basically from Nov. 1 to May,” Doolittle said.

“Christmas Day, 16 hours; the next day, 16 hours you’re working then go home and do your own stuff,” Hudacek said. “It’s tough.”

Doolittle said he understands the budget constraints but encouraged committee members to look at the difference in pay for city workers within the county.

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“I don’t think there’s one county board member that would not love to have the same pay rate as the city,” Baker said. “But where’s the money? That’s our headache.”

Doucette said officials are working on a wage study that will include comparisons with wages in Duluth, Superior and St. Louis and Carlton counties. However, with the current levy limits, she said officials are likely to implement any plan to remedy the situation slowly so the county can afford it.

Employees leaving their jobs is a problem everywhere, Baker said. His son is a production manager at Ravin Crossbow and often deals with employees who quit after receiving one week’s pay, he said.

Douglas County board chair Mark Liebaert said it’s a problem throughout the county, including the jail, 911 communication center and health and human services department.

He doesn’t believe throwing money at the problem is a solution, he said, because it hasn’t worked in the jail so far after the county raised wages and implemented a recruitment and retention bonus.

“The new generation isn’t signing up long term,” Liebaert said. “We feel all the things you’re talking about. We just don’t have the tools to solve it.”

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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