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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Yakima County staffing shortage hits sheriff’s office especially hard

By Phil Ferolito Yakima Herald-Republic Yakima Herald-Republic

Yakima County is facing an unprecedented staffing shortage across all departments, with more than 40 unfilled positions.

The county employs 994 full-time workers. In July, there were 44 vacant positions spread across several departments with the largest shortfall – 11 unfilled positions – in the sheriff’s office.

The clerk’s office has two vacant positions while the other job vacancies are spread across county departments, said Human Resources Director Jacqui Lindsay.

“These are unprecedented times with the number of job openings that we’ve experienced over the past two years,” she said. “We are no different than similar government entities. Even the private sector is reportedly having problems recruiting.”

The county’s overall operating budget is $271.3 million with a $70 million general fund, which largely pays for the sheriff’s office, courts and corrections.

“It is always a tough challenge to balance what the compensation should be against budgetary constraints experienced by the County,” Lindsay said. “I will also point out that over the past year and a half, and most recently within this year, the county has responded to these challenges by implementing some targeted recruitment enhancements to attract applicants and retain employees.”

In May, county commissioners approved a sweeping 5% pay increase totaling $750,000 annually for employees across several departments.

The Yakima Health District made a similar move earlier this year after losing several employees to the state, including the state Department of Health, for higher-paying jobs and the ability to work remotely.

Pay has long been an issue in the sheriff’s office, said Sheriff Bob Udell.

“We’re right in the middle of a very serious pay study and the elected officials and department heads are meeting weekly and we’re about ready to get our pay up to market,” he said.

Udell said his office is down about four deputies and seven noncommissioned staff such as emergency dispatchers and records officers who track sex offenders, oversee protection orders, warrants, civil papers and financial documents.

“Their jobs have to be done every single day,” he said. “You can’t put it off until tomorrow. These have to be done.”

Pay has improved recently for dispatchers and it’s helping, Udell said.

His office is funded for 13 dispatchers, and he now has eight. That’s a drastic improvement from earlier this year, when he had five.

“At times, the civil deputy had found herself doing dispatch – a senior officer going in and doing dispatch,” he said.

The five dispatchers often worked 12-hour shifts without any days off, Udell said.

“This agency and the county owes those people for what they did,” he said.

The office is running more smoothly with eight dispatchers, and Udell said he has several more now in the hiring pipeline.

“We’re doing OK. We’re getting our functions done,” he said. “We are stressed, but we are managing.”

Other positions still need pay increases to attract and retain qualified people, he said.

Some important positions that require expertise, psychological evaluations and background checks pay only about $19 an hour, Udell said.

“Someone looks at a $19-an-hour-job and says, ‘I’m not going to put myself through all that for that,’ ” he said.

Udell said many positions in his office are paid about 20% below comparable positions elsewhere.

“With other government jobs paying much more, it’s hard to attract them here,” Udell said.

Results of the pay study undoubtedly will lead to pay increases, he said.

“There will be significant jumps up – no numbers yet – but it will be significant,” Udell said.