Lower than competitive market wages.  Long hours that include "sun-up to sun-down" commitment.  High turn-over.  These are some of the issues that have plagued the Douglas County Highway department for some time.  And, these are the issues that employees brought to supervisors recently with a call to solve the problems.

The core issues seem to be less-than competitive pay and the extreme commitment that a job on the highway department demands.  According to details shared in an article in the Superior Telegram, staffers with the Douglas County Highway Department earn "significantly less than their counterparts in Carlton and St. Louis Counties in Minnesota".  In addition, they also "earn as much as $5.00 an hour less than (their) counterparts in the City of Superior".

The pay issue has led to staff shortages and high turnover in a short amount of time.  Dan Doolittle - a long-time veteran of the department shared:

"We're losing employees at a faster rate now than we ever have.  I don't know if you know this or not, over the last four years....21 employees have quit".

It's worth noting that that number - 21 - doesn't include the staffers that retirements have brought.

Douglas County, WI government office building
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth

While the county has been able to bring in some new recruits from time to time, the new members of the team often aren't ready for the commitment that working on a highway department brings - even though it's fully explained during the interview and hiring process.  Doolittle shares his experiences over the last winter:

"We're married to that job basically from November 1 to May.  Christmas Day, 16 hours; the next day, 16 hours you're working then go home and do your own stuff.  It's tough."

For their part, Douglas County officials are examining the wage-disparity situation. Currently, they're working on a wage study.  However - like any government entity - they're constrained by levy situations.  "Last year, [Douglas] County was only allowed to raise its operating levy by 0.9%, about $180,000 for all county operations".  "An across-the-board 2% salary increase that went into effect January 1 will cost the county about $400,000 this year". It doesn't take a calculator to see the disparity.

To address the concerns, members of the Douglas County Highway department recently held a virtual meeting with the county's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, according to an article in the Superior Telegram [paywall].  Participants agree that the session was time well spent - with each side allowed to share their concerns.

The Douglas County Highway Department is responsible for maintenance of about 335 miles of county roadway and 412 miles of state roadway.

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