Are water utility employees underpaid?
Spending on employees in the utilities have skyrocketed
I admit I didn’t pay much attention to James Henderson when he was hired as the city’s Human Resources Director. But Henderson got a lot of people’s attention last Tuesday.
Henderson swatted down the idea that city’s water utility’s employees are leaving in droves because they’re underpaid. How does he know that? He’s the Human Resources Director for the city, and tracks that very information.
How many left to take other more lucrative jobs in 2023? Exactly zero, Henderson says.
There were seven people who left the water utility last year. All of them were either terminations, or retirements, Henderson says.
Henderson explained this in a joint meeting between the city’s Human Resources Committee and the city’s Water Commission. The premise of the meeting was that there was something of a crisis in the water utility in attracting and retaining talent in the water utility.
They came armed with two studies alleging that city employees in the water utility are under-paid relevant to their peers. They claims that Wausau falls short 8-11 percent compared to peer communities.
Henderson swatted those down too.
A study from Baker-Tilly, for instance, looked at four communities: Oshkosh, Appleton, Manitowoc and Oak Creek. Appleton and Oak Creek, Henderson points out, are about twice the size of Wausau and Oak Creek is a suburb of Milwaukee. “It looked like those communities were hand-picked,” Henderson says. Henderson says there were too many differences in compensation structure to make much sense comparing them. (The other used national average, which Henderson explained is skewed because that includes places on the east and west coasts that skew the averages upward.)
Henderson points out to the committee and commission that the starting salary for an entry level water utility worker is $52,000, and that comes with three weeks of paid vacation, person time, and perfect attendance time off. And that’s for a job that doesn’t require a college degree; plus the city pays for certifications, where those other communities require employees to have those certifications.
Not everyone agreed with Henderson. Dawn Herbst said she thought Henderson was being too negative, and that the pay was not acceptable. “The current pay in Wausau is a joke,” Herbst said. “It’s an insult to our workers and employees.” She said she believed that a lot of people are leaving to other areas.
Henderson replied: “Everyone says that but no one gives me any proof.”
Committee member Gary Gisselman said he thought the city should conduct a full wage study. Henderson explained that would cost another $100,000 roughly - and the city had spent $24,000 on one recent wage study and the water commission spent another $40,000. Gisselman told the committee that he thought that was worth it.
But one thing that wasn’t discussed Monday night - that the water utility’s personnel costs have already been increasing. A lot.