Orange grapples with town employees’ morale

Diana Schindler, Orange town administrator.

Diana Schindler, Orange town administrator.

ORANGE — When Town Administrator Diana Schindler was hired last fall, selectmen told her the number one priority was improving employee morale, but that goal has proved elusive.

In earlier selectmen’s meetings, Schindler reported widespread problems with employee morale, which she said ultimately leads to reduced productivity and decreased efficiency of operations.

She has also linked the morale issues to a rash of customer service complaints that end up in her office when they don’t get resolved in the town’s various departments.

She said that employees, including department chairs, are stressed with lack of resources and occasionally “lash out at residents … By the time (the residents) get to my office they are upset, angry, sometimes they are crying.”

“We have great people doing great work,” Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Reinig said, but she acknowledges the stress of staff cuts and a lack of job supports sometimes leads to customer complaints.

“When someone complains to me about a problem, I see it as a way to connect with the person and find out what is going on and how we can improve these things,” said Reinig.

Over the past few months, Schindler has wrestled to identify root causes of and solutions for boosting morale.

Lack of resources

At an all-staff meeting last month, Schindler stood in front of about 40 Orange employees with a large pie chart of the town budget.

She explained that how the pie gets sliced up leaves little left for “everything else” employees need to do their jobs.

“In this day and age,” Schindler said, “employees expect to walk in their office and have it be clean and free of mold and to turn on their computers and have them work right … and if they’re fighting snow and ice, and a piece of equipment fails, they expect there to be a back-up.”

She said that after paying for education, wages and benefits, including those for retirees, “only 8 percent of the budget funds ... all utilities, office supplies, employee training, capital improvements, technology upgrades, building maintenance and equipment.”

The lack of these basic supports “makes the joy of coming to work every day very, very low.”

Staffing cuts and vacancies

Schindler also said that in some departments, including Town Hall, the fire, cemetery, health and building departments, there is a lack of support staff.

Administrative Coordinator Sheri Cleveland agreed the lack of staffing and other resources have made it difficult to keep spirits up.

She said many employees are less committed to staying in their jobs when there are too few hands to get the work done. “You’re asked to do more and more and you end up being appreciated less and less” with remuneration that is “either monetary or verbal.”

Cemetery and Parks Superintendent Josh Knechtl agrees the past few years have been a challenge.

Knechtel said that because of staff cuts in recent years, “everyone is so stretched to meet the needs of the town ... we’re trying to provide services but sometimes we are failing and that’s frustrating ... there’s a big group of the public that’s not happy and I don’t blame them.”

Communication

Knechtel said good communication is critical in improving employee morale, between departments and town leaders, as well as with the public.

Schindler admits consistent communication across departments has been a shortcoming. She plans on more regular communication with department heads in the future.

Knechtel said the all-staff meeting is a good start, but he believes smaller “focus groups” of employees are more likely to encourage employees to speak up and provide input about how to improve morale and town operations.

Inconsistencies in pay and benefits

SEIU 888 Union President and Water System Operator Richard Matthews said Schindler will need to build trust among employees who feel she has been inconsistent in making hiring decisions and managing employees.

“Perception is everything,” said Human Resource Board Chairwoman Linda Smith. “If one person thinks they can come to work when they want to … or get benefits other employees have to work years for, that’s not going to do anything for morale.”

Matthews and Smith both cited the town’s agreement to give incoming Treasurer Gabriele Voelker a flexible schedule and several weeks of vacation as being unfair to other employees. And they said some workers are allowed to start their work days later than others. But Schindler contends salaried and hourly employees are different and should be treated as such. “There absolutely needs to be parity,” said Schindler, “but that’s not the same thing as equality” of positions in terms of compensation or levels of responsibility. But she agrees the perception employees are not compensated fairly contributes to poor morale.

“Right now, there’s no consistency of thought or consensus on whether people are paid fairly or not whether benefits are fair … we have no information outside the bubble of Orange to be able to really analyze that.”

In the absence of an independent study, Schindler plans to analyze the wages and benefits of Orange employees in comparison with those of other small towns to ensure each position is compensated fairly.

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