A plan by Erie County administrators to address low wages in Child Protective Services has received a chilly reception from county lawmakers.
"You put a plan together and didn't reach out to people affected and say, 'Are we on the right road here? Is this going to fly?' " said Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst.
High turnover and difficulty attracting new employees to the agency have troubled county officials. But pay raises for CPS workers has proved to be a thorny issue for legislators who must approve any changes.
"This proposal won't fix the problem," said Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo.
Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, described the plan as one created by "three people in a room," referring to three top social services commissioners who were its primary crafters.
County legislators said the plan was developed without any substantive consultation from CPS workers or their union.
The Poloncarz administration had hoped the Legislature would approve the new wages this Thursday. But that timetable now seems in doubt. A large group of employees wore black in Legislature chambers last Thursday to protest the wage proposal.
The administration and the employees agree CPS caseworkers are underpaid compared with other counties.
But the two sides have different visions of how to address the problem for the social services unit responsible for protecting neglected and abused children.
The wage proposal offered by the administration would raise the entry-level salary for new and inexperienced caseworkers across several social services divisions but provides no additional pay for higher-level CPS workers. The administration's proposal is designed to attract new employees and provide greater workplace flexibility for management.
Its proposal would cost the county an additional $448,400 this year, and more than $556,300 in annual recurring costs in future years.
CPS employees are lobbying for raises for all CPS workers, including senior investigators and supervisors. They also oppose the administration's idea of extending raises to non-CPS caseworkers, saying that other caseworkers are not considered first responders or essential personnel.
"We talk about morale," said Renee O'Neill, a team leader in the agency. "This proposal is depleting what's left."
Some legislators and leaders with the county's white-collar union, Civil Service Employees Association Local 815, suggested that county labor relations representatives meet with CSEA representatives to craft a new plan that can get buy-in from all sides.
Personnel Commissioner David Palmer responded that the pay is not the only cause of hiring and retention problems for the unit. He also cautioned that legislator suggestions for wage hikes for all CPS workers might be unaffordable.
In October, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz wrote a letter to Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, who at that time served as chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee. At that time, he estimated that the CPS workers' plan to adjust the job groups and pay for all full-time CPS staff would cost nearly $2 million a year in additional county spending.
Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park, asked how much it was already costing the county to have to continually retrain new employees instead of retaining the ones they have. Administrators said they had not calculated that cost.
Current Health and Human Services Chairman John Bruso, D-Lancaster, said he recognized and understood the wage proposal before the Legislature was insufficient to address all the needs presented by CPS workers. But he endorsed the administration's wage proposal as a "first step." Some salaries would rise right away, he said, and give the county something to build on.
He also expressed concern that nothing would be put into place and the existing offer of higher pay to some employees would be at risk if both sides went back to the drawing board and spent extended time trying to satisfy all CPS caseworkers.
He added, however, that if a small group with representatives from both sides could meet, there might be a path forward. But there doesn't seem to be agreement on how to proceed, he said.
"I do not have a sense as to what's going to happen next," he said.