- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2011

Not long after taking office as mayor in 1979, Marion Barry presided over a hiring spree that swelled the D.C. government dramatically — creating positions that, even at the time, some doubted were necessary. Three decades later, thousands of those people are still there — now at the peak of seniority.

As a result, the median salary for an executive assistant is now $72,000, with 1 in 10 making $90,000 or more, and the highest-paid making $110,000, a Washington Times analysis of tax records found. Payroll for the District’s 33,400 employees has swelled under the strain of a disproportionately aged workforce that includes thousands of low-level workers who are making salaries commensurate with many years of experience.

As these baby boomers hit their 60s, the D.C. government is on the precipice of a wave of retirements that could reshape the face of its workforce and allow the government to replace older public servants with cheaper, younger counterparts — or not at all, shrinking the workforce without painful and politically difficult layoffs.

(For a sortable and searchable database of all D.C. workers’ salaries, click here.)

In the mid-1980s, 4,000 D.C. workers began their jobs, more than in any other period until recently, which includes political appointees and high-turnover, low-level jobs. Most of those mid-1980s workers make more than $77,000.

Christopher Best, for example, a custodian who has been on his job since 1985, made $104,759 in 2010, up from $101,329 in 2009.

The transition toward a younger workforce already has begun. The city’s payroll is down from 35,100 names in 2008, a decrease that closely parallels the loss of 1,900 workers who started in the 1980s or earlier.

Hundreds who began working for the District in the 1950s and 1960s — half a century or more, in many cases — are still working there, but their numbers are down sharply from 800 in 2008.

Claire Brinkley made $135,000 as a workers’ compensation examiner by the time she retired in 2008, ending a career that began in 1960. Police Sgt. Buddy Smallwood is still on the beat, where he has been since 1964.

Some have retired from one city job with a pension, under old rules, and begun working for another.

Most D.C. workers do not make inflated salaries, and the pay for many is relatively low. But it pays to stick around. The mean increase in compensation for those who stayed was $5,500 from 2008 to 2010, according to The Times analysis.

Many with decades of seniority are in jobs that typically are considered the domain of young workers either because they are physically demanding or because they are relatively undemanding of experience and training.

The majority of the 300-plus workers in the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, now part of the city’s General Services arm, have been there since the 1980s or earlier. The rate is about 3 in 10 workers in homeland security, human services, police and the mental health and procurement offices.

“The positions where people come and stay are entry level, when you look at the education required,” said Shawn Stokes, the city’s director of human resources.

Even as jobs usually considered entrees in the workforce become lifetime posts because they provide stability for people who lack college degrees, some positions on the front lines of the city’s most vital services undergo burnout and turnover that shirks institutional memory and makes experience hard to come by, she added, highlighting some social workers and corrections officers.

Of every 10 parking enforcement agents in 2008, eight are still working for the city, compared with 3 in 10 counselors, The Times found.

“It’s pushing paper versus going into a jail where you never know what you’re going to get on a day-to-day basis, and you see a lot of turnover,” Ms. Stokes said.

An antiquated culture

High retention coupled with a rapidly changing citizenry has resulted in a growing divide between city workers and the public they serve. As the city has become younger, according to census figures, those running it have grown older.

Many jobs are still geared toward yesteryear. Millions of dollars are spent yearly on workers whose functions are making photocopies and transcribing handwritten forms, and job titles still distinguish between secretaries who can type and those who can’t. Illuminating a seeming preference for processing postal mail over email and filing cabinets over instantaneous searches is the fact that 1 in 5 clerical assistants have worked for the city for more than 20 years.

“There’s been a slow migration toward available technology,” said Charles Tucker, general counsel for the human resources department, one that has cost the city money and frustrated residents with inefficiency.

Retirements will open doors for young job seekers, save the city money and help it adopt technology that comes as a second nature to the younger generation.

“As the turnover increases … it presents a lot of opportunities for younger individuals,” he said. Agencies “have the opportunity to start all over again and tap into this new pool.”

Raises for the top

Soon after taking office, an investigation undertaken by council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, found that Mr. Gray was paying at least 14 political appointees higher salaries than the law allowed.

“The committee finds particularly troubling the cavalier attitude in which public money was spent in determining salaries. There appears to have been little, if any, regard to negotiating the lowest acceptable salary from appointees,” a council report said.

Last week, the council approved legislation granting exceptions for the employees who had been promised more, including $275,000 for schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and $254,000 for Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, while maintaining the caps for their successors.

City law caps pay for agency heads at $179,096. The mayor also may appoint up to 160 people to policy roles making up to $193,125 without council confirmation. But other employees make more, including rank-and-file workers with extensive overtime.

City Administrator Allen Lew, whose salary is set by the mayor, makes $295,000, up from $204,000 for the city administrator in 2008, records show.

The municipal payroll includes some unexpected occupations. The Metropolitan Police Department, for instance, employs a dozen full-time scuba divers, most of whom make in the six figures.

Most firefighters have worked for the District since at least 1992. Police and firefighters hired before 1980 can retire with full benefits after 20 years, while those hired later reach eligibility after 25 years, and, while on the job, they earn longevity raises for lower milestones.

Citywide, 1,137 workers will mark their 25-year employment anniversaries in the next year, while 609 crossed that milestone last year, The Times analysis showed. The final spike will come in 2015, when 1,026 current workers hired in a 1990 spurt reach the mark.

The city has difficulty predicting retirements because they are voluntary and because some workers are reluctant to give up health care benefits, even when they are old enough to retire, officials said, but the percentage eligible for retirement is expected to rise each year through 2015.

As vacancies arise because of retirements, Ms. Stokes said, agency directors will evaluate whether to backfill them on a case-by-case basis. She could not provide figures in numbers of positions or dollars expected to be saved by allowing the size of the D.C. government to shrink naturally.

Despite potential savings, the loss of the Barry-era employees also could mean a significant loss of institutional memory, Mr. Tucker said.

“In some instances, you do lose a special skill set. I’m not thinking of one off the top of my head, but just the 30-year expertise. They’re career specialists.”

• Luke Rosiak can be reached at lrosiak@washingtontimes.com.

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