LACONIA — Some county workers will receive as much as $200 in extra pay weekly under an expenditure approved Thursday by the Belknap County Legislative Delegation.
The money comes from federal pandemic economic relief funds and the stipends are intended to help retain and recruit workers at a time when it has been difficult to field sufficient staff to meet the responsibilities of county government.
Delegation members approved use of $1.39 million from a grant of $11.9 million designated for the country under the American Rescue Plan Act. The staff stipends will cost $676,000.
There are 18 full-time and six part-time job openings at the county nursing home and five vacant positions at the jail. Because of the staffing shortage, no new residents are being taken at the nursing home, which has a resident population of 66 and a capacity for 94.
County Administrator Debra Shackett said the nursing home has lost 38 staff members since January.
“Some moved, some stopped showing up, some retired or changed careers, some went to other nursing homes or hospitals,” she said.
“Correction officers are in the same boat. They make less than a lot of other corrections jobs and it’s not hard to find a job now making more money as a plumber, electrician or carpenter.”
Shackett said the extra money could keep people from leaving but also could lead to more success in hiring new workers. Some prospective job candidates have told the county they can make more in their present positions or in other jobs, even things like delivering pizza.
County Commissioner Peter Spanos said the pandemic has been particularly difficult for county workers.
“It’s hard for morale, it’s a threat to their health and it really makes a job that is normally challenging, well beyond that,” he said.
Under the premium pay program, county employees in positions that are the most difficult to recruit and those who work traditional shifts as part of round-the-clock coverage will be paid, in addition to their normal compensation, a weekly stipend of $200 for the last 20 weeks of this year.
The stipend would drop to $150 per week next year and $100 weekly in 2023. Meanwhile, the county would do a study about making adjustments to permanent pay scales.
All other employees scheduled to work at least 32 hours per week, will receive a lump sum payment of $2,500, another $2,500 in the first payroll of April 2022, and $1,000 in the first payroll of April 2023.
Permanent part-time employees will receive $1,000 in 2021, $1,000 in 2022, and $500 in 2023.
Also approved Thursday night as part of the federal grant was $500,000 to update the county’s aging emergency radio communications system. The present system has major deficiencies, including dead zones. A system upgrade was designated as an urgent need.
This would be just the first installment on a project that will eventually cost an estimated $1.8 million, including major work on radio towers.
Money was also approved for replacement of leaking skylights at the nursing home, an audit, a licensed practical nurse training program and the compensation study.
“It was an absolutely successful result,” Shackett said regarding the funding approval. “The county is very appreciative. The atmosphere is very happy.
“We all knew it was a pretty significant ask.”
In the past, there has been conflict between the County Commission, which makes spending recommendations, and the delegation, whose responsibility it is to approve or reject such recommendations.
This first expenditure out of the federal funds was only for the most urgent needs, Shackett said. Further meetings will be held to consider other projects.