⏲︎ This article is more than a year old.

Ongoing efforts by Lebanon County officials to fill open job positions are paying dividends.

Once down by nearly 150 positions from its approximate workforce of 700, the employment rolls have turned the tide with over 600 individuals now employed by the county.

“The trend, overall, is good,” Robert Phillips, chairman of the Lebanon County Commissioners, said at a recent meeting. “We’re putting a dent in it.”

County controller Jamie Wolgemuth said that’s great news given the impact of the Great Resignation, which he said hurt not only the county’s employment numbers but most employers in the private sector as well.

“Once again, the hires are twice the number of departures,” said Wolgemuth during that same meeting. “This continues to tell the story a little bit … (but) there’s always vacancies.”

Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz said a coordinated team effort has had a positive impact on the open positions in Lebanon County.

“We have had a deliberate effort to make this a desirable place to work in Lebanon County,” said Litz.

She said a number of factors have contributed to the recent increase in the county’s workforce.

A salary study to adjust upward the salaries of new hires to be more competitive with the private sector employers, ”lots” of makeovers to county offices as well as renovations to the county’s cafeteria, and a recently implemented retention reward program have all combined to make a dent in the number of job vacancies.

“We culminated with retention rewards for people who have shown loyalty to Lebanon County to let them know that they are appreciated and valued for the job they do,” said Litz. “I think we need to reach out and remind people that we are not doing anything to hurt Lebanon County (financially), but we’ve been working very hard to make Lebanon County government a good place to work, a desirable place to work, and a place where they (employees) can spend their entire career if they so choose.”

At their June 16 meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to spend $2.1 million of the $27 million in ARPA funds the county received for retention payments for “county employees who worked from March 20, 2020, through June 13, 2020, as well as other COVID matters.”

The payment scale runs from $1,000 through $10,400 for about 380 eligible employees in the county’s non-union, Chocolate Worker’s, AFSCME, Detectives Association and Teamsters Local 429 unions.

At its mid-June meeting, the commissioners approved payments to all of these entities except the Teamsters since the county was still negotiating payments with that union. At its July 7 meeting, the commissioners voted to add qualifying Teamster members to the retention program.

Other retention reward stipulations mandate that workers are “currently employed as of the effective date of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Bonus Retention program, have ‘active status,’ and have worked throughout the 12-week shutdown,” according to county officials.

“I want to be clear, it’s not for everyone,” said Wolgemuth. “There was the tracking of time (for necessary workers) and departments that didn’t report because there was no need to report are not included. It’s not across the board.”

The funding program is for public safety workers and those who provided critical services but also individuals who supply support services, which broadened the circle of eligibility to over half of the county’s employees.

“The idea of the retention program is to retain and reward employees for hanging in there and to retain them in the future,” said Wolgemuth. “No, there is no stipulation that they have to remain employed in Lebanon County for a period of time to receive the payment.”

Wolgemuth said the decision to reward employees who faced danger and uncertainty during the height of the pandemic was the impetus on the part of federal legislators to provide ARPA funding across the nation.

“The idea came about because it was part of the legislation and it had a specified use as intended by Congress,” he said. “This rewards those people who had to go the extra mile and be at potential risk back when so many things were unknown. Many of these people put their lives on the line during the pandemic.”

Wolgemuth said the biggest beneficiaries of the recent hiring spurt have been the Lebanon County Correctional Facility, Children and Youth and the county’s department on aging. He added that nearly all social service departments under the county’s purview have seen their employment numbers increase in recent months thanks to these various initiatives.

When asked for the reasons he works in the public sector in Lebanon County government and why others should consider it, Wolgemuth cited several examples.

“There are good benefits, there are retirement savings, and depending on the type of career you pursue, that can be something that is a stepping stone into other areas of employment because the county has so many departments,” he said. “For me, there’s something different every day, there’s not too much that is boring about my job. By the same token, the employment terms are good.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...