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The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors has approved new hire bonuses and other incentives to attract candidates as the county seeks to fill job vacancies.

County departments have increased recruitments, but the county is receiving few job applications following a hiring freeze that began in 2020 and ended last year.

Human Resources director Rocio Kiryczun told the board that the situation is not exclusive to the county.

“We have all read and heard about the ‘great resignation,’” Kiryczun said. “Nationwide and locally, there has been an uptick in workers leaving their jobs. They’re reevaluating their situation in the ever-changing environment experienced during the pandemic.”

Despite the county’s recruitment efforts, its vacancies and turnover rates are higher than normal. The county’s vacancy rate this year is 13 percent compared to the usual 10 percent. And turnover rates are at 11 percent this year so far, compared to 7 percent last year.

San Mateo County, like many government agencies, has been hit hard by resignations and retirements during the pandemic. A graphic explains some of the reasons why workers in the public sector are choosing to leave. The entire presentation can be obtained online. (Image courtesy of San Mateo County)

Kiryczun added that the turnover rate will likely increase as people retire.

Some of the hardest-to-fill positions have been in the law enforcement and health departments, for roles such as social workers, nurses, doctors and sheriff’s deputies.

County spokesperson Michelle Durand said in a statement that while the current job vacancies are not impacting the county’s operations right now, departments are using more extra help and overtime hours.

“The use of overtime does however place an additional burden on employees and is not sustainable long term,” Durand said. “As the hiring and training for new hires takes time, the county is looking at ways to fill vacancies as soon as possible so we don’t see a future impact to the service delivery.”

Adding incentives

The board approved three recommendations to attract candidates for its hard-to-fill positions.

First, new employees hired for these positions would receive advanced benefits, such as 40 vacation hours and up to 80 hours of sick leave, up from the previous 48 hours of sick leave. They may also be able to accrue vacation hours at an advanced rate depending on past work experience.

Second, a pilot program would provide a hiring bonus of up to $30,000 for people hired as sheriff’s deputies and nurses or up to $15,000 for deputy sheriff trainee and correctional officer positions. The bonus would be split into several payments, with an initial payment upon starting and the rest paid over three years pending ongoing employment.

Furthermore, current county employees would receive a $1,000 award for referring a candidate that is successfully hired in a hard-to-fill position and who completes probation. This is an increase from the previous referral award of $500.

The cost of these programs will be covered by the respective departments.

Surveys have shed some insight into why people stay and why people leave their jobs in the county.

“Essentially what we’re hearing from employees is that they want quality jobs, competitive salary benefits, (a) flexible work environment, purpose and career development opportunities,” Kiryczun said.

The high cost of housing has also proven to be a challenge for recruiting new hires and one of the reasons that people choose to leave.

Housing assistance

To help employees with housing, the county has programs such as an employee down payment assistance program, which offers a $100,000 loan for eligible employees to put towards purchasing a home.

However, the demand for the program is higher than what the county can provide.

The loans are distributed via lottery and the number of people drawn depends on funding availability. Only four people were selected in the January draw, according to the county’s website. Kiryczun said that sometimes employees don’t take the loan because of the cost of housing in the area.

One person who called in to the supervisors’ March 8 meeting, who identified herself as a county employee, said that she hoped the board would consider expanding the down payment assistance program.

The county also has an external firm reviewing its recruitment and retention practices to provide extra recommendations. That study is expected to be complete by June.

For details on Tuesday’s meeting and a video of the job placement discussion, people can visit the county’s website.