Union rep: 'Popcorn day' is nice, but won't solve York County 911 center issues

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

The union representative for York County's 911 center employees attended this week's commissioners' meeting and thanked the board for approving a new contract, saying the deal should help with morale and staffing issues in the long term.

But Steven Mullen — director of the American Federation of State, County and  Municipal Employees — also pleaded with the county commissioners at the Sept. 5 meeting to focus on short-term solutions to stem the exodus of 911 dispatchers.

He said the union has been suggesting for more than a year that the county take measures such as hiring more part-time and per-diem employees to help combat staffing shortages, but he "has never gotten a straight answer."

President Commissioner Susan Byrnes didn't respond directly but later said the commissioners are "looking at all" suggestions to address the 911 center's issues.

She also added that dispatchers knew what they were getting into when they applied for their jobs.

"When you sign up for that kind of a job, you have to make some personal sacrifices because you are in a public-service role," Byrnes said.

York County President Commissioner Susan Byrnes speaks during the opening ceremony for the 17th annual York County Senior Olympics at Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Kristy Bixler, the county's human resources director, said at the meeting that the county is in the process of implementing changes to boost morale and relieve exhaustion, such as creating a walking path for dispatchers.

She also said the center's management recently held a "popcorn day" to boost morale at the center.

'Underlying problem': After the meeting, Mullen said Byrnes' and Bixler's responses "concerned me."

"They seem to think that if the employees are stressed, all they need to do is get massage tables or something," he said. "But the stress is from mandating (overtime) so often."

It seems like the commissioners aren't interested in finding practical solutions, Mullen added.

"Stuff like popcorn day is wonderful, but it's not addressing the underlying problem," he said. "Until the changes like I suggested happen, it's not going to get better."

New contract: Mullen's appearance at the commissioners' meeting came just a week after a new union contract was approved.

On Wednesday. Aug. 29, the commissioners approved a new, three-year union contract containing pay raises for 145 county employees, including dispatchers, and updates to the disciplinary process.

The contract takes effect amid a wave of complaints from dispatchers and the union about issues at the 911 center.

More:York County Commissioners approve new contract for 911 dispatchers, others

More:York County dispatchers: New contract won't solve 911 center woes

An employee talks with a co-worker at the York County 911 Center Monday, July 31, 2017. County spokesman Mark Walters and lead training supervisor Roxie Tate talked with the media Monday, Feb. 26 regarding recent problems with the center's paging system. Bill Kalina photo

The York Dispatch first reported in late February that the center was operating with 47 employees, or a little more than half of the 86 budgeted positions. The number has since increased to 51.

Since January, 26 dispatchers have quit and nine have been fired, according to statistics provided by county spokesman Mark Walters.

The high number of vacancies has led to excessive mandated overtime — often reaching 16 hours per shift — for the remaining employees. Numerous former dispatchers as well as some first-responders have said they fear the safety of the public could be at risk because of exhausted dispatchers.

At the Sept. 5 commissioners meeting, Mullen mentioned the widespread flooding after an Aug. 31 storm and noted there was a "tremendous amount" of mandated overtime, leading to employees "working extremely hard and for extremely long hours."

"This isn't good for the employees, and it's not going to help the recruitment and retention problem," he said, adding, "and it's certainly not good for the citizens of York County."

More:Next week: FEMA to assess York County storm damage 

Mullen previously said the commissioners don't seem to have a plan to address the issues.

"We really need to sit down and work this out," he said. "We can't continue to work these people at this pace; it's not going to work. They have been leaving in droves, and we need to do something about that. These people are suffering."

Former dispatcher: Gábor Barna, who resigned from the 911 center Aug. 31, agreed the commissioners need to take more short-term steps to address staffing and morale issues.

Gábor Barna talks about conditions at York County Department of Emergency Services, at his home, Friday, August 31, 2018. The 911 Center employee resigned from the county after the interview. Bill Kalina photo

Barna said he had worked 53 days straight and at times 204 hours in a two-week span at the center. But that's not why he resigned.

The reason, Barna said, is because he didn't want to be the dispatcher who puts someone's life in danger because he's too tired to do his job correctly. 

"I don't want the personal stress on my hands to mess up and not hear what the officer says or not hear what the civilian says on that line," Barna said. "I don't want to be the one to make that mistake because I'm fatigued."

The most recently departed dispatcher said employees are beginning to "look like zombies," and unless something is done soon, someone is going to get hurt.

To relieve the fatigued dispatchers, Barna recommended the county reach out to surrounding counties for help, because York County's 911 Center is unique in the severity of staffing issues.

When the suggestion was brought up to Byrnes, she said getting help from surrounding counties "may not be a viable option,"  as "other counties are having the same problems we are."

The commissioner added that statements such as Barna's "need to be based on fact, not conjecture."

Unique issue: However, a York Dispatch investigation in April found that York County is unique in the extent of its staffing shortage.

The York Dispatch compiled employment numbers for more than a dozen other county 911 centers in Pennsylvania either near York or with a similar population size.

None came close to York County's total of 26 openings at the time — the number is now 32 — with Montgomery and Lehigh counties the only other counties reporting more than 10 openings.

In Montgomery County there were 15 openings out of 126 total employment slots, according to their deputy director.

Lehigh County had 12 openings for 42 total slots, but their director, Laurie Bailey, pointed out that the county had allotted 16 additional dispatcher positions for the 911 center since the beginning of 2018. The center was fully staffed before that, she said.

Gábor Barna talked about conditions at York County Department of Emergency Services, at his home, Friday, August 31, 2018. The 911 Center employee resigned from the county after the interview. Bill Kalina photo

Call for action: Unless York County can boost its numbers, Barna said, "it's not a matter of if, but when somebody will end up in a very bad situation."

He emphasized it's now up to residents, fire and police personnel and others to urge the commissioners to take action and make themselves heard.

"If dispatchers can't even take care of themselves, it puts everyone at risk, including dispatchers, the public and officers," Barna said. "Right now the dispatchers really need the public, because they're worn out and can only go so far. We have a duty to serve the public, but we also have to be able to take care of ourselves."