November 27, 2021

County mulls 2 health department hires

Cortland County legislators will consider hiring two people in its health department, even though legislators admitted low salaries have made recruiting workers difficult and retaining them even harder.

“We’re having some difficulty recruiting positions throughout the county,” said Laurie Leonard, the county’s personnel officer.

The county has 40 vacancies posted on its website.

At the county Legislature’s Government and Operations Committee and Judiciary and Public Safety Committee meetings Thursday, the sheriff, social services commissioner and public health department manager all told legislators they are short-staffed.

“I know that especially the DSS caseworkers and our highway crew are so underpaid that we can’t hire them and we can’t keep them,” said Legislator Linda Jones (U-Homer).

In July, the Legislature voted to hire a company, the Burke Group, to analyze salaries to determine if employees are paid adequately. The study results will be available by the end of September.

“We have a study going on and, in my way of thinking, we should have a hiring freeze until we get this report back,” said Republican Conference Leader George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer). “Then we can seriously look at creating any new positions.”

However, Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland) said the recent spike in positive coronavirus cases is cause for concern, and an additional public health nurse and an epidemiology manager could allow the health department to focus on facing COVID-19.

“Only having three or four nurses during a pandemic has been woefully inadequate,” Bischoff said. “If you talk to any county health department in the Central New York region, you’d get the same feedback — the funding has never been sufficient for the need and demands.”

The two full-time positions would be funded by COVID Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity grants. The public health nurse would be paid between $62,500 and $73,250 a year. The epidemiology manager would be paid $59,71 to $72,477 a year.

“They’d basically be the key person overseeing all the cases, tracing and monitoring quarantine, other things of that nature,” Bischoff said. Until now, those tasks have been spread across the entire staff.

“There are other responsibilities on a daily basis that they need to attend to,” Bischoff said. Many of the health department employees have fallen behind on daily tasks because of the added workload. “The COVID money is meant to expand the resources within the Public Health Department to provide relief.”

Legislator Sandy Price (DHarford, Virgil) noted, however, the grant funding is temporary. She suggested the two positions end automatically after two years, so legislators can assess the need before renewing the positions.

“My crystal ball is a little foggy right now, so I’m not sure, in two years, that we would need this or that there would be funding for it,” Price said.

“There are already two positions in our health department that have not been filled — one that our current deputy health director came from, and the one that our health director came from. They’ve been short-staffed for a long time,” said Legislator Eugene Waldbauer (R-Cortlandville).

“The other issue is trying to get good candidates for positions that have a two-year lifespan,” he added. “In this day and age, it’s going to be nearly impossible. We can’t get people to apply for permanent positions, let alone ones that are only guaranteed to be around for two years.”

The committee voted, 4-2, in favor of creating the public health nurse and epidemiology manager positions without a set two-year limit. Jones and Wagner voted no, and Legislator Kelly Preston (U-Homer) was absent. The full legislature will consider the resolution Aug. 26.