Tension builds over Vernon pay raises

VERNON – The City of Vernon voted to give employees a retroactive raise to employees who work outside when the council met in a called session Thursday, July 1, but although the decision has been one the council has pondered for months, it has other City staff crying foul.

Council members voted to increase the pay of three positions – Public Works Director Jason Rhoton, Public Works employee Chad Taylor, and Public Works employee Jamison Haskins – following recent struggles to keep positions filled in the Public Works Department.

“Throughout the last month and a half, we have been discussing the outside workers and the need to get their pay comparable [to other locations],” said Mayor Candice Hodges. “We just lost an employee because of this issue.” Hodges says the raise is to have the pay scale more competitive in an effort to keep vital services going for the City.

RhotonÂ’s pay was increased from $14.47 an hour to $18 an hour; TaylorÂ’s from $11,50 an hour to $15 an hour, and the position recently filled by Haskins increased by a dollar to $13 an hour.

City Clerk Tracy Walker and Deputy Clerk Michelle Cross state although they understand Public Works staff work in the heat and likely deserve raises, the action discriminates against other staff who have lateral seniority and qualifications.

“EEOC requires equal pay for substantially equal job content (not job titles), as well guarantees against gender discrimination,” Walker told the council during the called meeting. 

“Job content includes environment, education, seniority, etc.  Historically, not only in Vernon, but throughout the State of Florida and Nation, City Clerk pay is higher than that of the Public Works Director.”

“I am in no way discounting [RhotonÂ’s] contributions to the City of Vernon,” she added. “JasonÂ’s job entails physical labor out in the elements, while I am inside with mental stresses of daily operation of the City. He went to school for one week for a certificate; I hold a two-year college degree. He was hired in March of 2018 and became the Public Works Director in October 2019; I was hired in March of 2017 and named interim City Clerk December 2017 and permanent City Clerk January 2018.  The Public Works Director has two main duties  while I have a handful, depending on the circumstances, I can have up to four in one day.”

Walker currently makes $16.87 an hour. Comparatively, the hourly salary of City Clerks in surrounding towns are: Bonifay – $26.93; Chipley – $23.01 to $ 54.18; Ebro – $18.53; and Wausau – $18.30.

Mayor Hodges clarified that raises for other staff are not out of the question and stated in an interview after the meeting that it is the CityÂ’s intention to seek raises for the administrative staff in the new budget year, as well as seek federal COVID relief funds to give retroactive pay to those who served the public during the pandemic.

“I have reached out to the other staff previously to make sure they knew we hadn’t forgotten about them,” said Hodges. “We have even mentioned trying to get them retroactive pay. They, of course, are also important to the workings of the City. We needed to act quickly on Public Works but plan on working on raises for the other staff as we look at the budget over the next two months before it takes effect in October.”

City Attorney Michelle Jordan stated in an email response to the issue that while it is not the CityÂ’s intention to be discriminatory, the perception of the raises could cause problems. 

“While I am of the firm opinion that the Council has no intention to discriminate against any employee, the unfortunate optics of this decision to grant pay raises to certain staff but not others when the staff who received raises were male while the staff who did not receive raises were female result in an easy conclusion that a discriminatory impact will result,” said Jordan. “Had the Council voted to give only rank-and-file staff a pay raise but not a supervisor, I would be in a better position to defend their decision as non-discriminatory. That is because the job duties of the male rank-and-file public works staff are similarly situated only with one another. But in this case, the Council also voted to give a male supervisor a raise and that supervisor’s duties are not aligned with those of his subordinates.”

Jordan went on to say that she encourages the City to reconsider the decision to award pay raises to all public works employees, who are all male but not the administrative employees, who are all female. 

“The body of caselaw as to the potential liability of this decision is strongly in favor of the administrative employees,” she cautioned. “This means that any lawsuit brought by an administrative employee under these circumstances would be difficult to defend.”

Mayor Hodges states Vernon City Council plans to discuss raises for administrative staff when they meet again in workshop at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 6.