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Disaster response, health services, infrastructure repair - Sonoma County’s staff are stretched thin in critical areas.

Hoping to fill a backlog of vacancies, the county has launched a new hiring incentive program, but not everyone is happy with the approach.

Sonoma County government staff say they are struggling to hire.

"The county, just like many other jurisdictions, if not all, is really experiencing some challenging times as it relates to recruitment right now," Said Janelle Crane, interim Human Resources Director for Sonoma County.

The county is actively recruiting for close to 100 jobs.

"Like in our corrections area, in dispatch, in healthcare and, some of our other licensed professionals," Crane said.

Licensed positions in nursing, behavioral, and environmental health remain acutely understaffed - some with vacancy rates upwards of 50%.

It’s not just licensed specialists who are short on staff though.

County public works crews say they too are stretched thin - forced to pick and choose repairs from a backlog of issues.

Nearby counties like Marin and Alameda, facing staffing issues of their own, have turned to hiring incentives as a way to bring new employees in the door, and now Sonoma County is following suit, Crane said.

"It's just one piece of the overall puzzle," Crane said. "It's not anticipated to solve all of our problems."

Crane said the incentives are on a sliding scale.

"People can qualify for amounts ranging between 10 and $25,000 that they receive over a two to three year period," Crane said.

But the county emphasizes only some of the nearly 100 vacancies are eligible for the program.

"There's just a handful, maybe 10 or so that currently the incentive applies to," Crane said.

Crane said there are explicit criteria for positions listed in the incentive program.

"If we've had an open recruitment for more than six months or if we've had a failed recruitment and we weren't able to hire or weren't able to fill all the positions, or if it's a position that might require some kind of licensure or certification and it's been challenging to fill, then those positions would qualify," Crane said.

The program has been drawing criticism though...from the county’s own employees.

"If you do this one pronged approach, what's gonna happen is people are gonna come in for the front door for a couple years and the the rest of the staff that's not getting paid that and aren't getting the wages that they truly deserve are gonna be going out the back," Todd Hart said.

Hart is a therapist in the county’s behavioral health access team and a member of the Engineers and Scientists Union, ESC Local 20, representing some 250 county employees.

He and other members of ESC Local 20, like behavioral health clinician Bea Esbit, said the incentive program feels like a betrayal to existing staff who have worked through natural disasters, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the severe staffing shortage.

"I'm out in the community daily supporting clients experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and more," Esbit said. "You're sending a clear fiscal message to me that my efforts over the past three and a half years aren't worth as much as you getting someone else in the door."

It’s not just the members of ESC Local 20 aggrieved. County social worker and SEIU 1021 member Ellie Campbell Brown said retention should be the focus.

"The program in general gives the message that a brand new employee is literally worth 10 to $15,000 more than someone who will inevitably be training that new employee and who has been keeping the county afloat despite devastating short staffing," Campbell-Brown said. "The county seems only to care about recruitment, but retention is what needs to be the focus."

Jana Blunt, president of SEIU Local 1021, which represents thousands of county employees, shared the disappointment with county leaders decision.

"Just because you're putting a butt in a seat doesn't mean it's the right butt," Blunt said. "Not that any of the unions wanna bat money out of anyone’s hand by any means. The money, the money should be handed out, but living wage is what we’ve always been asking for and those long term solutions just seem less tantalizing to the Board of Supes."

And she offers a - blunt - solution.

"We begged the board of soups for months," Blunt said. "Please don't do this. Just because you can get somebody in with an additional $5,000 dollars doesn't mean they're gonna stay, and it doesn't mean it's who we want. The the real way to address recruitment issues, and then of course, retention issues are just providing a living wage."

County Supervisors approved the recruitment incentive program in mid-April.

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