Vancouver plans salary comparison for workers

It will look at private-sector compensation

By Andrea Damewood and Laura McVicker

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Vancouver is planning a study that could dramatically affect the way the city pays its employees.

The city council agreed Monday afternoon to get bids from companies on a comprehensive review of compensation for the city’s 961-person workforce.

The study will include a market survey that includes comparisons with the private sector, a look at performance-based pay, and review of the city’s compensation philosophy and structure, Human Resources Director Elizabeth Gotelli told the city council.

The market study came as a response to the changing economy and the shift in demand for certain positions.

“The complete picture has changed in the last few years,” Gotelli said, noting the city does not want to continue with “business as usual” amid an economic recession and a transformed job market.

Bids to potential consultants will go out Wednesday and the city expects to choose a company to conduct the study in December. The survey is expected to be completed by September 2012. It is too soon to estimate how much the work will cost the city, said Human Resources Deputy Director Antoinette Gasbarre.

Among the hot topics at Monday’s work session: The fact that human resources officials want the market study to compare equivalent salaries in the private sector. Councilors spent a large chunk of the meeting debating the pros and cons to that approach.

“I don’t know if private is the way to go,” Councilor Jeanne Harris said as soon as Gotelli introduced the topic.

Harris said she was concerned about comparing public- and private-sector jobs; it is like apples and oranges, she said. She also was worried there wasn’t the same broad base of disciplines in private businesses as in the city.

Harris, however, agreed with other councilors who noted the need to compete in the current job market and attract and retain solid employees.

“But I also want us to remember we’re not the private sector,” Harris said. “We are government.”

Councilor Jack Burkman pointed out that the city is hiring from the same pool of applicants as those who apply for private positions.

“We’re competing against the private sector,” he said. “We’re competing against the public sector.”

No matter what the study shows, the city must negotiate any changes to pay and benefits with its unions. Not counting public safety, which is unionized, about 61 percent of Vancouver civilian employees belong to a union, while 39 percent do not.

City officials say Vancouver pegs its pay to 95 percent of the average pay for other public workers in similar jobs in similar-sized cities.

Human resources officials already drafted the proposal to be sent to prospective consultants. Gasbarre told the council that many of its questions will be addressed with the winning consultant as the work unfolds.

A progress report is set for April.