By Dale Martin
May 7, 2021
As you get around town, by driving, biking, or walking, one of the most prevalent signs throughout the community is “Help Wanted.” Many local businesses continue to thirst for workers of a variety of backgrounds and skills. The lack of workers is becoming so acute that some businesses have reduced operating hours or, at the extreme, temporarily (hopefully) ceased operations.
The Nassau County Chamber of Commerce distributes a monthly “dashboard” of Nassau County Economic Indicators. The report presents a series of statistics, including community, employment, sales, business, housing, education, tourism and other components. The dashboard can be found with this link: https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:898dca12-aefb-45f7-a0fc-09a5725f0504. The Chamber’s May dashboard shows an unemployment rate of 4%, with approximately 1,700 people listed as unemployed (of a 40,000 strong community workforce). Thank you to the Chamber for also providing a link to all previous dashboard reports: https://www.islandchamber.com/economic-indicators-dashboard.html. Please visit the Chamber website for additional support and information.
The Chamber’s website also provides job listings throughout the County. A review of the current listings shows over twenty job postings (and I expect several of those listings are for multiple positions), representing a range of desired skills. Westrock, one of the largest employers in the City and community, also has a jobs page accessible through its website: about twenty jobs, from general laborer to management are posted.
The City is not immune to the labor challenges, either. On the City website, over twenty different positions are posted (http://www.fbfl.us/jobs.aspx). Similar to both the Chamber’s and Westrock’s postings, the City jobs require a varying degree of education and experience. The need for personnel in some departments is nearing critical shortages.
The City Golf Course and the Parks and Recreation Department need a variety of staff, including maintenance and attendant workers. Without sufficient junior staff, current operations may, like some in the private sector, have to be temporarily reduced. In some departments, the current staff is being stretched to personal limits to maintain services, jeopardizing work and family stability. Again, this same challenge is prevalent in the private sector as demands on dwindling staff increase.
The most critical shortages for the City are related to public safety: Police, Fire, and Ocean Rescue. For the Police and Fire Departments, some of the current labor challenges are directly related to the transition from long-tenured senior staff retirements. Many patrol officers and firefighters have had careers with the City of Fernandina Beach for over twenty years. The replacement for these highly-trained professionals is problematic because of the demand for police officers and firefighters throughout the country.
Adding to the difficulties for recruiting are current wages (in relation to other private and public agencies), especially for junior staff. This is the most likely cause of shortages for City positions for services such as Ocean Rescue personnel. I recently approved a wage adjustment for several Ocean Rescue personnel in an effort to adequately staff beach lifeguard stations prior to the onset of the summer season.
In her report to the City Commission on March 2, Ms. Denise Matson, Fernandina Beach Human Resources Director, offered additional insight to the City’s labor challenges. The City has approximately two hundred full-time personnel and over fifty part-time and another fifty seasonal employees. The number of current employees is consistent with the number of employees a decade ago (returning to those numbers after a significant reduction following the Great Recession).
Ms. Matson also reported that the City’s pay ranges (all positions except for the City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk have a salary or wage range) has not been modified for over thirteen years. Staff turnover over the past two years has exceeded twenty percent, again, primarily in the junior staff or entry level positions. She, too, highlighted the difficulties in recruiting and retaining general labor staff due to wages. An impending impact to City personnel costs is also the minimum wage increase to $15 per hour (over the course of the next four years) as approved by the State of Florida voters: several City positions currently pay less than that soon-to-be mandated wage.
Earlier this week, I finalized the hiring of two new Firefighter/Paramedics. The wage for these two trained public safety professionals is $11.54 per hour. Yes, the City does provide additional benefits such as healthcare and retirement, but even with those additions, it is often difficult to get past the initial wage issue, especially when compared to the entry pay for other regional public agencies (which are not much higher, but still higher). The starting wages for a patrol officer are not much higher.
The City staff remains dedicated and honored to serve this community. The City is not immune to the labor challenges confronting all employers and, at some point, the levels of service for such things as Parks and Recreation, Ocean Rescue, and Golf Course operations, all of which require significant junior staff to support, may be temporarily affected. Thank you for your understanding and patience.