Officials: York County 911 Center little more than half staffed
York County spokesman Mark Walters talks about the recent problems with the county's 911 paging system.
At York County's 911 center, which is operating with a little more than half the staff it's budgeted for, a union representative says dispatchers are required to work more than 12-hour days to take up the slack — and are punished if they refuse.
High turnover and staffing shortages have plagued the center for years, according to Steve Mullen, director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) district representing the 911 dispatchers.
However, the situation has gotten worse, according to the union rep, and one fire chief says the high turnover is affecting first responders.
At full staff, the center would have 86 employees, but it has just 47, along with 10 in training and six more set to begin training in March, according to county spokesman Mark Walters.
Mullen said the county is at times mandating employees work more than 12 hours in a day, which is the maximum allowed under the union contract.
The union has filed numerous grievances during the past year but has delayed moving toward arbitration in favor of working with county officials, he said.
However, the issue has gotten worse, according to Mullen, and the union will now move forward with those grievances after getting reports from its members that mandated overtime was being thrust onto employees without warning.
He also said those who refused were suspended, leaving more open shifts, which require more mandated overtime.
"It's like a circular firing squad," Mullen said.
Walters said the county is sometimes put in a difficult spot when employees call off or refuse overtime, leaving them to scramble to fill needed shifts. Suspensions are allowed based on an employee's disciplinary history, he added.
Supervisors and administrators are often forced to take those shifts answering phones to fill scheduling holes, he said.
Walters noted employee retainment has been an issue at the 911 center for years, though it has become even more of an issue recently.
An analysis of overtime pay at the center compiled by the county shows the county has paid more than $2.7 million in overtime costs there since 2016.
Costs during that period peaked in November 2017, though the overall costs between 2016 and 2017 are slight and have dipped each pay period in 2018 so far.
First responders: Union Fire Co. Chief Joseph Stevens said he does notice the high turnover rate among dispatchers as newer employees don't always get fire personnel the resources they need as quickly as the longtime employees who have left.
Stevens acknowledged the enormous difficulty of dispatchers' jobs — talking to people in stressful situations, working with a complex radio system and having to prioritize multiple calls at a time.
More experienced dispatchers are able to better anticipate all the resources needed in specific emergency situations, such as calling for a utility to shut off gas and electric at a home during a fire, he said.
Stevens said he doesn't think the public needs to be overly concerned about the staffing shortage, but Mullen said the public should realize overworked dispatchers are not good for safety.
Low pay: Mullen said high turnover is a problem for 911 centers across Pennsylvania, but among the employees he represents, York County is the worst.
He pointed out that low pay is definitely a factor. The starting salary is $12.50 per hour, and Mullen said employees have left for less stressful jobs that pay the same amount.
Walters admitted that low pay has been mentioned in exit interviews with departing dispatchers, but more often than not, the job's stressful nature and psychological toll is the primary reason employees leave.
In an effort to reduce turnover, Walters said, the county is implementing a second-shift training schedule, at the request of the union and its members.
The county also has considered switching from 8-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, as has been implemented successfully in other county 911 centers, but no agreement has been met on that front, according to Walters.
— Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the union as opposing a switch to 12-hour shifts.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.