Vancouver to study how it pays, classifies employees

$51,000 effort is city’s first workforce study in a decade

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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With an eye on an overhaul of employee compensation, the city of Vancouver has hired a Minnesota company to examine the way it pays and classifies the jobs of workers.

The study -- expected to cost $51,000 in the first stage -- will take the unusual step of comparing Vancouver’s salaries, benefits and job classifications not only with other governments of the same size, but also with private-sector employees.

Among the things set for study: pay for performance, rather than guaranteed step increases that many unionized jobs offer.

City Manager Eric Holmes said Wednesday that it’s been almost a decade since the city last looked at its employment philosophy.

“The cost of our workforce typically makes up about 70 percent of our expenditures,” Holmes said. “We need to make sure we have a compensation and classification system that makes sense, but also pays competitively based on market values, and allows us to live within our means.”

It won’t be clear what the results of the study will be until the first results and recommendations are released in early June, but the city’s goal is to have plans in place by the end of the year, in time for the adoption of the 2013-2014 budget.

No matter what, with words like “streamlining classification and compensation structures” and “pay for performance,” many changes a study could bring would take a lot of bargaining with the city’s unionized workers, who represent about 70 percent of Vancouver’s 961 employees.

“We have been in communication with the unions,” Holmes said. “They’re well aware and we’ve made a commitment to proactively make sure they have all the information we get as the process goes on.”

Pat Thompson, deputy director of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, said adding pay for performance into contracts isn’t onerous in itself, but it must be done fairly.

The contract the union and the city struck last year includes an element of pay for performance, he noted.

“The devil’s in the details of the evaluation, of the methodology used and the instrument used to do that evaluation,” Thompson said. “We recognize that can be a component and we’re going to be working on that in conjunction with the city on how it’s applied.”

Not all public service jobs have direct matches in the private sector -- public safety, for example -- but Holmes said many others do. He listed engineers, office staff, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, planners and others who do have synonymous private counterparts.

“In order to look at what the total talent pool is, I think we need to take into account the private sector,” said Holmes, adding the study will look at both pay and benefits.

Vancouver Human Resources Director Elizabeth Gotelli said that in the first phase, Fox Lawson & Associates will conduct market studies; make recommendations regarding the city’s pay philosophy and the streamlining of the city’s classification structure; and the feasibility of a pay-for-performance model.

Once that phase is completed, the city may choose to spend more on further studies and consultant work, Gotelli said.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.