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County looks at increasing minimum wage

Thursday, June 6, 2019 by Jack Craver

Generally, the city of Austin and Travis County view each other as partners, not competitors. However, when it comes to attracting and retaining talented employees, the two can’t help but compete.

That’s why the Travis County Human Resources Department periodically analyzes how county employees’ compensation compares to their peers working for the city and other major public sector employers in the region.

The most recent market analysis, which was presented to the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, took into account pay for employees of the state’s five largest cities and nine largest counties, the University of Texas, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and state government. Finally, it also considered figures available on Salary.com.

The analysis included 3,355 different positions. Based on what workers in comparable roles were making at the other agencies, the HR department determined that 2,102 of the positions (63 percent) were appropriately compensated. It recommended pay increases for 1,246 positions. Only seven positions were deemed overpaid, for which it recommended pay decreases.

Part of the analysis focused specifically on the county’s lowest-paid employees and whether it was time to increase the county’s livable wage rate – the minimum starting pay for county workers.

The county first established its LWR in 1997, when it set it at $7/hour, which is only slightly less than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. It currently stands at $13/hour, after getting boosted from $11/hour in 2017.

The city of Austin, San Antonio and Bexar County have all recently bumped their minimum pay to $15/hour, and staff recommended Travis County do the same.

There are roughly 200 positions at below $15/hour, but only 95 of them are filled.

Just bringing all employees up to the recommended living wage would cost an additional $715,000 a year. However, HR Director Tracey Calloway recommended increasing pay for those making just above that threshold to avoid “compression” between different pay levels. The idea is that supervisors, for instance, should be making a certain amount more than their subordinates.

Adjusting pay to avoid compression would cost an additional $400,000, bringing the total cost of the living wage increase to $1.139 million a year.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty asked Calloway whether she believed people could live in Travis County on only $15/hour, which amounts to an annual salary of $31,200.

“I think it depends on the individuals, it depends on family size and who’s working in the household,” replied Calloway, noting that a single person sharing an apartment with a roommate could probably make do.

From a practical perspective, increasing the minimum wage will make it easier for the county to attract and hold on to good employees working in lower-paying positions. An extra $2/hour amounts to an additional $4,000 a year, noted Calloway: “That is extremely meaningful.”

Daugherty, who was speaking via Skype from his vacation home in New Mexico, said it is “painful” to hear county employees talk about how they struggle to live in the county they serve. Unfortunately, he said, the county is not in a position to pay all of its employees what they need to live comfortably.

“If we wanted to pay everybody who works for Travis an ample amount of money to effectively live in Travis County, the number would be very, very large,” he said.

Commissioner Brigid Shea concurred, noting a recent study estimating a person must make $23/hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Austin.

“We don’t have the capacity to raise people to that level, but I think if we chip away at it we can make improvements,” she said, adding that high turnover due to low pay leads the county to devote more resources to training new employees.

The court will make decisions about employee pay later this year, as part of the budget process.

This story has been corrected to reflect the correct federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour..

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