MONROE — The committee that oversees Green County Public Health is seeking approval for a pay raise for the head of the department, RoAnn Warden.
A request the Health Committee made to the Personnel and Labor Relations Committee on Sept. 30 was denied.
The Health Committee plans to go back with a lower request later in October.
Warden is salaried at $37.97 hourly, based on 40 hours per week. As a salaried employee, she is not compensated for overtime she works beyond the baseline of 40 hours. The Health Committee initially sought a 20% raise to $45.79 per hour, arguing that Green County pays its health department director less than neighboring counties.
“We’re way behind our neighbors,” Harvey Kubly, chair of the Health Committee, said. He cited Lafayette, Grant and Iowa counties in particular.
“We got information on what they pay their health directors, and Green County is way lower than that. ... Those of us on the committee were surprised at how far behind we are in compensating our health director,” Kubly said.
The denial of the initial pay raise request disappointed him.
“We believe that our request was well-justified,” he said.
Warden, a registered nurse since 1987, has been with Green County since 2006 and director of the health department since 2008.
At a meeting Oct. 14, the Health Committee decided to go back to the Personnel and Labor Relations Committee later this month with a request to raise Warden’s hourly rate 12% to $42.64.
The Health Committee was united in its support of the raise, citing worries about market rate, retention and what one member described as “an extraordinary set of circumstances” due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Warden told committee members their amended request of $42.64 would be in line with what she was hoping to get.
But she acknowledged the request “is going to upset the applecart” because some department heads aren’t paid as much.
“It is going to be a fury storm with other department heads,” she said.
Art Carter, who chairs the Personnel and Labor Relations Committee, said the Health Committee’s Sept. 30 request was denied partly out of a principle of fairness. Raising Warden’s salary would “distort” other department heads’ salaries.
“We felt that it was just out of line, whether they deserve it or not,” he said.
Another issue is money, Carter said, citing an unexpected increase of roughly 9% in the cost of county-provided employee health insurance this year.
“That grabs dollars,” he said. “We didn’t plan for that big an increase.”
As for the argument that the pandemic has unduly burdened the health department, Carter said the directors of Human Services, Finance and Emergency Management have also had increased workloads.
“Where do we reward one over the other?” he said, adding that decisions on pay raises are challenging and “not simple.”
A 2018 wage study of Green County employees, completed by an outside firm, found that nearly 90% of a cross-section of county positions are paid less than the market estimate, including the public health director.
Carter said the county studied what it would need to do to meet the market rates, “and the dollars aren’t there.”
More recently, the Health Committee asked Human Resources Director Delores Merrick to pull together information on what health department directors in other counties are paid. Merrick surveyed HR directors across the state and heard back from about two dozen.
She declined to share her findings with the Times. In general, she said, salary “kind of depends on the (population) size of the county ... like Rock County is close to us but the size of the county is really not comparable, and their pay would not be comparable.”
Iowa County, for example, which has about two-thirds the population of Green County, pays an hourly range of $38.13 to $42.37 to its salaried health department director. The current director is paid $42.37 hourly, Employee Relations Director Allison Leitzinger said.
‘It doesn’t go away after 4:30’
The pandemic is overwhelming Green County Public Health, and the pressure isn’t letting up. The county, like the rest of the state, is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“We’re operating under a public health emergency, and it doesn’t go away after 4:30 or on the weekend,” Warden said in a phone interview. “Early on I was pushing 60 hours per week. I would say in the last month or so I’ve intentionally reduced closer to 50, just because you can’t sustain that.”
Green County’s contact tracers have had to resort to “crisis standards of practice,” including shortened interviews, fewer questions, reduced frequency of phone contacts and emailed test results, Warden said. These modifications are based on state-recommended “flexible strategies.”
Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer and epidemiologist, sent local county health departments a Sept. 15 memo identifying ways to cut back on COVID-19 contact tracing “in the face of surging disease or limited staffing.”
Relaxed restrictions on social gatherings and “low levels of public cooperation” are also threatening contact tracing efforts.
“The number of close contacts identified per infected case has grown substantially larger and transmission events and settings have become more complex, both of which add to the workload of contact tracers,” Westergaard wrote in the memo.
At the Oct. 14 meeting of the Green County Health Committee, Warden praised her staff as “fabulous” but said she’s worried that they are burning out.
“Things are going to build up, they’re going to back up. We’re overwhelmed,” she said.
Green County reported 124 confirmed active cases of COVID-19 as of Oct. 19, with five hospitalized. The positivity rate among those tested in the past two weeks is over 16%, more than three times what Warden considers a manageable rate for disease spread.
One more death was reported Oct. 17, bringing the COVID-19 death toll in Green County to four. The latest victim was a resident in her 80s with comorbidities.
Green County Public Health hired a limited-term nurse starting Oct. 13 and has added two contracted employees to assist at the county’s testing sites. Warden said the county is expecting federal aid, but it likely won’t be enough and “we’ll have some hard decisions to make.”
In the final weeks of October, public health nurses are also focusing on flu vaccinations, including flu shots for schoolchildren across the county.
“We’re really trying to get our kiddos vaccinated for the flu,” Warden said.