Employment Challenges for Local Public Safety: Recruitment and retention are critical issues

(from Maine Townsman, October 2006)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

With an aging work force, physically demanding jobs, and no decrease in demand for services, Maine’s public safety departments are faced with particular challenges in meeting citizen expectations.

The Maine Municipal Association devoted two workshops at its annual convention in early October to the subjects of retaining and finding new firefighters and police officers, and explaining a new state health insurance benefit for public safety employees.

The new insurance benefit program is available to public safety employees between retirement – often around age 50 – and when they become eligible for Medicare. The insurance program was created by the Legislature earlier this year, after a bruising floor battle that saw the measure, LD 1021, pass narrowly in both houses before being signed into law by Gov. John Baldacci. While there was some crossing of the aisle on the vote, the bill, sponsored by outgoing House Majority Whip Robert Duplessis (D-Westbrook), himself a retired firefighter, got support mostly from Democrats, while most Republicans were opposed.

According to the state benefits specialists who explained the program to the convention session attendees — predominately public safety employees, the legislation leaves some uncertainty about funding and future benefits. Nonetheless, the session presenters said they believed most of those who are eligible will sign up.

Recruitment & Retention Challenges

While state support of health insurance for retired public safety employees is seen as an important tool to keep and attract new workers, the second panel, moderated by the MMA’s director of personnel services and labor relations, David Barrett, made it clear that the challenges of recruitment and retention are numerous and diverse.

Barrett led the panelists, including an assistant city manager, police chief, fire chief, and human resources director, through a rapid-fire look at numerous issues concerning the hiring and retention of public safety professionals.

The specific concerns vary considerably between communities of different sizes and between the fire and police specialties, but there’s no doubt that in some cases, public safety employees are in short supply.

Robert Farrar, assistant city manager in Bangor, said that the fire department there is the largest in northern Maine, and can offer more opportunities for advancement than smaller departments, “where there may be a chief and not much else.” Bangor does not have much difficulty hiring full-time firefighters, many of whom have a background as call or volunteer responders in the city or other nearby communities. The problem, as for many departments statewide, is keeping up the strength of the call force, paid based on number of responses, and volunteers, who have become increasingly scarce.

Skowhegan Police Chief Butch Asselin said he faces significant competition for officers from other agencies. “There’s no state firefighting corps to compare with State Police,” he said. “Generally, the municipal fire departments are at the top of their profession.”

Skowhegan sometimes loses officers to county patrols as well as the state, and, in addition, some new police officers find the work doesn’t suit them. And there are other reasons. One officer became a Jehovah’s Witness and resigned because his beliefs did not allow him to carry a firearm.

At the hiring end, Asselin would like to see some changes in the profession. “We have to stop recruiting as if this was a ‘Cops’ episode from TV,” he said. “What a lot of young people see there are SWAT teams in action. Most of the work in Maine isn’t like that. It’s getting involved in domestic disputes, and running down burglaries. What they call community policing elsewhere is really what we do most of the time.”

On the other hand, officers who make it through the first two years often stay a long time, he said. Younger officers often prefer the night shift “where most of the action is,” while older, married police officers like the predictability and pace of the day shift.

In some cases, Skowhegan’s pay is competitive with other agencies. Asselin mentioned a “lateral transfer” from a county sheriff’s department that enabled him to offer a new recruit several thousands dollars more in annual salary.

The “lateral transfer” – giving credit for time served in other departments and agencies – is increasingly common, given the shortage of full-time police officers, said Ellen Blair, human resources director for the City of Augusta. Recruits are given credit for previous service on the pay scale, she said, but in Augusta there is no effect on seniority within the department or vacation time.

In some parts of the country, the shortage of officers had led to less rigid hiring standards. Asselin said that a misdemeanor drug conviction would once have disqualified a candidate automatically, but that’s not always the case anymore.

Robert Farrar said that background checks and polygraph results are the most frequent source of the failure of recruits to actually join departments. In the current climate, he said, it may be necessary to overlook “youthful indiscretions,” though serious offenses will still prevent employment in law enforcement agencies.

Ellen Blair expressed some surprise at how many candidates for Augusta public safety jobs fail because they can’t meet physical training standards, specifically the agility test. “You’d think by the time they apply that they know they have to lift a certain weight or run a certain distance. I’d be out there jogging and getting ready.”

As a result of personnel shortages, Augusta has had to do a little more marketing. In one case, instead of requiring potential new hires to come to Maine for interviews and background checks, the department sent its own people to Florida. The investment worked when Augusta police were able to hire a husband-and-wife team, a dispatcher and patrol officer.

Rumford Fire Chief John Woulfe said that encouraging volunteers to join up can be a problem, but that once firefighters reach full-time status they usually stay for years, if not an entire career. “This isn’t a job with a lot of transferable skills,” he said. “Those who like it tend to stay. It’s their passion.”

There was general agreement that a lot of effort needs to go into the hiring process, because there’s a lot of investment in each new recruit.

Blair said that there was a basic cost of $10,000-$12,000 in training and equipping each new police officer, yet only about 50 percent of recruits make the grade.

Considering indirect costs, the tab may be much higher. A study for the Town of Kittery suggested that recruitment and initial costs amount to as much as $27,000.

Another area of concern is the dispatching departments that are currently in transition, as the Public Utilities Commission carries out a legislative mandate to reduce the number of Public Service Answering Points (PSAPs) from 46 to 24 statewide, or perhaps as few as 16.

Blair said that there is “huge turnover” in the Augusta dispatch division, although there are several long-term employees. “In the other chairs, it’s 100 percent a year,” she said.

Farrar said that Bangor also had major turnover issues among its dispatchers when the city was considering ending it service and joining Penobscot County dispatch, as all other communities in the county have done except Bangor and Lincoln. Now that the decision to maintain a municipal dispatch center has been made, he said, employment has stabilized again.

There will always be new opportunities for public safety workers elsewhere, the panelists agreed. Butch Asselin points out that police officers can earn up to $120,000 “tax free” as private contractors in Iraq, and the big paycheck is attractive despite the obvious dangers. “Some have stuck with it for years, going from Kosovo to the Middle East and now Iraq.” Other officers join the border patrol, Coast Guard, and private security.

Recruiting and retaining public safety workers is more challenging than it has been in the past, but is not yet a crisis, the panelists said. The aging baby boomers could change that, but so far departments in Maine are able to keep vacancies to the point where response times are not significantly affected, they said.

Health Care Benefits

Against that backdrop, the push for health care benefits for retired public safety workers is not surprising.

There’s little question that most such employees want assistance with health insurance between retirement and eligibility for Medicare. In part due to the physical demands of their work, most retire earlier than 65. But there has been fierce debate about who should pay – solely the individual, the municipality, or the state.

The retirees’ health care benefit was the subject of intense interest in the first seminar, with one of the central concerns of public safety employees whether the Legislature of 2007-08 will actually fund the benefit that was created last spring. Those concerns reflected the pitched battle that ensued over the bill, LD 1021, which was held over from the first session and resulted in a complicated series of roll calls from May 22-24, as the session was winding down.

The bill initially failed in the House on a 71-67 vote, but then was reconsidered and enacted by a single vote, 72-71, with eight representatives excused or absent. In the Senate, the bill survived a challenge from Sen. Richard Nass ( R-York County), a member of the Appropriations Committee who claimed it was not properly submitted to the Senate. After overcoming that hurdle, the bill was enacted 20-13, with two Republicans joining all 18 Democrats in favor after the initial party-line tally, 18-15, on the parliamentary challenge.

In the House, the vote broke down differently, with most Democrats in favor but 11 of them voting no. Eleven Republicans crossed over to support the bill, plus the lone Green Party member. All three unenrolled members voted no. Gov. Baldacci signed the legislation the same day the Senate enacted it; it is now Public Law Chapter 636.

Given the legislative skirmishing, it is perhaps not surprising that there would be some doubts about whether the incoming Legislature will fund the benefit. It commits the state to funding 45 percent of health care costs for public safety employees who retire between age 50 and when they become eligible for Medicare, usually age 65.

Those costs, however, will be reduced by the contributions of employees who sign up. They are required to pay 1.5 percent of their gross income for at least five years before they can draw benefits.

Signup for the program for current employees must take place between November 1 and January 1, 2007. Contributions will begin on January 1, but no benefits will be paid until July 1, 2007, the start of the following fiscal year.

Several employees at the seminar pointed out that the new benefit is less generous that those enjoyed by retired state employees, who receive 100 percent paid health care until age 65, and retired teachers, who get a 45 percent subsidy from the state but make no payroll contributions.

Still, the contentiousness of the legislative debate revolved around concerns that the new benefit would increase the state’s unfunded liability for health insurance, already well over $1 billion – and expected to rise when new accounting rules take effect. Sen. Peter Mills ( R-Somerset County) said flatly that the public safety workers would consume far more health care than what they pay for, though there is no current estimate available. Benefit experts say it will depend primarily on what happens to future health care expenditures, which have been rising at near-double-digit rates in recent years.

As of early October, the rules for the new benefit were not yet available, and Guida Libby, the employee benefits supervisor for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said the main reason was the vagueness of the legislation’s language. “It’s really not very clearly written at all,” she said. At least four big questions involving eligibility must be resolved, though she was expects answers from the Attorney General’s office in time to send out enrollment forms by November 1. She said that funding will be included in the Governor’s biennial budget due in January, though the Legislature must also approve.

In general, full-time firefighters, EMS and police officers who are covered by an approved pension plan (Maine State Retirement or ICMA) are eligible, but the status of others is less clear. In general, it appears that employees would have to spend the majority of their time in those fields to be eligible, Libby said.

While the benefit should be attractive to most current employees and recent retirees, she said that those who are already 60 or older should take a careful look. They would have to make the equivalent of five years of contributions but would be eligible for benefits during a shorter period.

Asked later if the confusion about the program would deter employees from signing up, she said it probably wouldn’t. Considering the cost of health insurance, and the need for health care among those 50 and older, she said she expected most of those eligible will indeed enroll, and that there would be enough time by January 1 to get them signed up. “We will miss some, though,” she said, and appealed for help in tracking down retirees who may no longer have a current address with their former municipal employer. She also said she doesn’t expect the Legislature to extend the deadline; new employee hired after November 1, 2006 will have 60 days to accept or reject the benefit.

“We assume there are some people we are going to miss,” Libby said. “But we’re going to do our darndest to get them all.”