MARIETTA — Cobb County government says it has a workforce problem.
Six years ago, Cobb fielded nearly 67,000 applications vying for 584 staff positions. This year, the county is projected to receive less than 32,000 applications for 750 open spots, Tony Hagler, the county’s human resources director, said this week.
Declining staffing levels and months-long vacancies, Hagler said, can largely be blamed on Cobb’s inability to compete with other local governments’ pay rates and benefits. The average county salary is now about 7.89% behind that of Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett counties. (Those numbers don’t factor in the 3% raise approved by the Board of Commissioners as part of the fiscal 2022 budget, which will take effect next March.)
“Our departments are having to re-post jobs two and three times because they can’t find applicants to fill those positions,” Hagler said. “A lot of those applicants, even if they make it through the initial referral meeting minimum qualifications, we lose them in the rest of the process … they select themselves out because they don’t want to accept the pay that we’re able to offer them.”
That’s left the county “hemorrhaging” workers when it comes to recruitment and retention, according to County Manager Jackie McMorris. In 2020, the county’s employee turnover rate was 9%. That rate jumps to 13% for workers on the county’s less generous “hybrid” pension plan, which covers all employees hired since the plan’s creation in 2010.
This year, the county expects those numbers to climb to 12% and 15%, respectively.
“We’re having staff basically get burnout … we’re having people leave because of that,” Finance Director Bill Volckmann said, and offered an example:
“One of our biggest challenges with our vacant positions is that by the time we are able go through the process … we may get lucky to have a few applicants willing to interview (with) us, even after we’ve discussed pay. But most of the time — in our last year, especially — by the time they come in and we’re like, ‘We love you, we’d love you to start,’ ‘Oh well, I have five offers, can you match any of these?’” Volckmann said.
“Sorry, we can’t,” Volckmann said of his response, adding later, “We’re just nowhere close.”
The county government is working to get a comprehensive pay and classification study off the ground, not for the first time.
In 2014, the county retained the Archer Group consulting firm to undertake a similar study to the tune of $326,000. Despite concerns from commissioners, who pointed to the similarity of the Cobb study to one Archer prepared for DeKalb County, Archer’s findings were implemented in 2017.
Then there are the dozens of staffing needs across the government, a point which department heads have hit on going back to the county’s retreat in January. Commissioners turned down almost all of those requests in their 2022 budget, aside from five elections positions and a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.
Among the departments struggling the most right now is the medical examiner’s office. In 2020, Dr. Christopher Gulledge and his staff of 15 saw a 30% increase in their workload. August of 2021 has been their busiest month ever, and families and funeral homes find themselves waiting on death certificates and bodies to be released.
“There is a reason the chief (medical examiner) in DeKalb does not mop his morgue floor, and there is a reason the chief (medical examiner) in Denver doesn’t answer the door,” Gulledge told the board. “But I can tell you from experience, the Cobb chief (medical examiner) — he does both of those things.”
Commissioners will have plenty of time to weigh the slew of requests, which will only keep coming. Over the next six months, department heads will present their respective needs at subsequent work sessions. In February, the board hopes to begin deliberations ahead of next summer’s budget season.