A comprehensive overview of how the Loudoun County government pays its employees could lead to a complete compensation overhaul.
Last spring, the Board of Supervisors commissioned a review of how the county writes its job descriptions, classifies its employees, and pays them. Especially since the 2008 recession, the local government hasn’t kept pace with growth in the county. In many ways, it still pays its employees like a small jurisdiction, supervisors were told.
“What’s happened over time is basically you’ve outgrown the system you’ve put into place,” said Jeff Ling of Evergreen Solutions, the consultant was brought in to study the county’s compensation structure.
The consultants found that, while the county needs to update its pay structure, it hasn’t even kept up with the old one. Loudoun County currently aims to pay its employees, on average, 95 percent of what is paid by competing jurisdictions, defined as Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William. Every one of those jurisdictions aims to pay either 100 percent of the market midpoint, or within 5 percentage points to either side.
The county falls well short of even its stated goals.
The county finance committee has recommended it should aim for a range of 95 percent to 105 percent of median pay in the area.
The county will also change how it writes job descriptions for employees—and how many. The county classes employees in 10 broad career paths and 42 pay grades.
In practice, the consultant found, the county has had to jury-rig its own system with market adjustments since the 1980s, creating 154 de facto pay grades.
All those problems, Ling said, will make it hard for the county to recruit.
“Your compensation strategy really doesn’t target currently the best and brightest, and this is not a comment on, you don’t have good people here,” Ling told the finance committee. “From a structural and philosophical standpoint, you have not selected a model that typically produces that result.”
It can also take a toll on the morale of employees—while the consultants found 70 percent of employees were satisfied with their work environment, 79 percent with working for the county, and 87 percent with the type of work they were doing, they found enormous dissatisfaction with pay.
Only 17 percent of county employees reported satisfaction with the consistency of their raises, 20 percent with their overall pay plan, and 28 percent with their salary.
It’s especially hard to hold on to firefighters.
The Board of Supervisors’ finance committee is recommending that the county move toward a step-and-grade pay scale for firefighters. That would allow new recruits to know how much they can expect to make throughout their career.
Currently, firefighters get percentage raises like any other county employee—something no other jurisdiction in the area does. And firefighters in Loudoun are paid far less than in other jurisdictions in the region. Consequently, according to both the county consultant and Loudoun firefighters themselves, the county acts as a training ground for first responders, who soon decamp to other, higher-paying jurisdictions with more predictable schedules and more predictable earnings.
Firefighter pay and rank largely is based on time served, and typically even experienced firefighters who leave for a new department start from the bottom again.
But that’s often not enough to keep them in Loudoun.
Loudoun loses people constantly to other departments, according to Loudoun Career Firefighters Association member Jeremy Mader. And although he is loyal to Loudoun, he said it’s hard to look at what his friends are making in other jurisdictions like Fairfax.
“They have [pay] steps, which we don’t, so they make a lot more, so it’s worth it,” Mader said. “I know if I was younger, I would probably be jumping ship.”
Career Firefighters Association Vice President and fire lieutenant John Myers said when younger firefighters tell him they’re planning to leave, they cite better pay, better benefits, and better retirement at other departments, even starting over.
“If those guys cue all those words up to me, as a 17-year officer, I can’t hold them here,” Myers said.
The association has sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors as it prepares to take a vote on the future of compensation plans countywide during its meeting tonight.
In particular, the organization expressed concern about a vote to compare Loudoun against only a relatively narrow set of jurisdictions. A narrow majority on the finance committee recommended excluding jurisdictions further east or in Maryland.
“I would rather have our comparators be the places that we get people from, because that’s where we compete,” said finance committee Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “There’s a point where money versus the commute is the tradeoff.”
But County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said, “the question is not where do Loudoun County residents live. The questions is where do Loudoun County residents go to work.”
“We’re not losing people to their homes, we’re losing people to jobs in different areas,” Randall said. “So, we shouldn’t be looking at where they live, we should be looking at where they go work.” That, she said, includes jurisdictions further east near DC.
And because unions and collective bargaining have a stronger presence in Maryland, some supervisors voted not to compare Loudoun to Maryland counties and cities.
But the firefighters say that’s beside the point.
“They wanted to discount them because Maryland’s union, but at end of the day, they still pay more than us and our guys still go to Maryland to work, and they’re still competitors,” Mader said. “I don’t think that should be discounted just because they’re unionized.”
Loudoun, Myers said, is competing with departments all across the region for talent.
“The guys that drive from Pennsylvania do make money coming down here, but what ends up happening is, if you ask a lot of these guys, they don’t apply just to Loudoun and Fairfax,” Myers said. “They’re going to apply to a couple of places.”
And the numbers bear that out—because their shift schedules can allow it, Loudoun County firefighters tend to live much farther afield than other employees. One firefighter commutes to work from New York state. Others come from as far away as Virginia Beach.
A survey of career firefighters association members found more than a quarter of them live in Maryland. Among 101 firefighters who have applied to Maryland departments, 53 applied after being hired by Loudoun. Thirteen are currently in a Maryland hiring process.
Loudoun also loses firefighters to Washington, DC, including six at once two years ago, according to the association.
Still, Myers said the finance committee’s votes so far have given him reason to be optimistic that supervisors will take steps to “keep talented people in Loudoun County, instead of letting in people, training them, and letting the talented people leave.”
“This board has helped us make steps in the right direction,” Myers said. “It’s the most support we’ve ever had as a whole and we greatly appreciate that. We just have to keep moving forward.”
The Board of Supervisors will vote tonight on the finance committee’s recommendations.