Luzerne County government employs 143 clerks with a variety of descriptive titles.
There are plain clerks, clerk typists, file clerks, accounts payable clerks, receptionist clerks and administrative clerks. Some have advanced from clerk I to clerk II and even clerk III.
What strikes county Manager Robert Lawton is their pay.
Forty-six of these clerks receive more than $30,000, a review of payroll records shows. Three make more than $40,000.
Two unionized prison clerks now exceed $50,000. The commissary clerk, who has worked for the county since 1999, is paid $51,323. The prison supply clerk, a 23-year employee, makes $55,236.
Most clerks start at around $21,000.
Lawton told County Council’s strategic initiatives committee Tuesday it would make sense to set maximum salaries for clerks and some other position categories. A salary range could allow some pay progression, but he does not believe employees should continue receiving pay increases once they hit caps for these positions, he said.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck, a committee member, questioned the strategy, saying it takes away the incentive for employees who have accrued valuable experience and demonstrated loyalty. It would not be fair for new employees to make the same or about the same as veteran ones, she said.
The county should be paying a fair salary for the position itself, said Lawton, and even the “best clerk in the whole county” must “face reality” if compensation for that position has “maxed out.”
“To pay someone a steadily increasing salary to stay in the same position for decades may not be the best approach,” he said. “It may be better to encourage a person to take on more responsibilities and seek advancement if they want more pay.”
Employees who choose to remain in the same position would still receive a benefit after they reach their salary cap because their county pension will increase with years of employment, Lawton said.
He also pointed to the problem of varying salaries for the same position in different departments.
For example, a non-union executive secretary in the courts who was hired in 1985 is paid $48,068, compared to the $37,450 salary of the unionized coroner’s office executive administrative assistant hired the same year.
The county employs 110 secretaries, administrative assistants and executive secretaries, records show. Of that, 53 are paid $30,000 to $39,999, 32 receive $40,000 to $49,999 and four have salaries of more than $50,000.
One “administrative assistant II” in a human services branch is paid $66,611 after 35 years of employment, records show.
Councilman Jim Bobeck, chairman of the strategic initiatives committee, said he supports pay caps but believes the county must start with an objective reclassification of all positions. Pay increases and bonuses should be based on merit, which would factor in experience and institutional knowledge, he said.
McClosky Houck raised concerns that merit increases would be “subjective” and awarded only to employees favored by managers. Raises granted to union workers assume merit, she said, because managers are expected to take action if employees aren’t performing.
The topic of compensation came up because the strategic initiatives committee is developing proposed workforce goals for council adoption. The administration will use the adopted standards as a guide in future decisions about employee compensation and benefits.
Officials say some alterations might be possible next year because six of the county’s 10 union agreements expire Dec. 31. These expiring contracts cover about 900 of the county’s 1,500 employees.
The expiring contracts for assistant district attorneys/public defenders and the prison allow the right to binding arbitration if negotiations reach an impasse. The four remaining unions covering the rank-and-file residual unit and children-and-youth, aging and mental-health employees have the right to strike.
County officials can change benefits and other workforce standards for the roughly 300 non-union workers without negotiation. However, officials have said it would be unfair to immediately force all new standards on this group of employees when it will take several rounds of union contracts — likely decades — to fully implement changes for workers bound by collective-bargaining agreements.