Hamilton County school officials look to solve wage compression caused by recent pay increases

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Karin Hawkins, school secretary at Normal Park Museum Magnet Upper School, speaks about the inequality of pay among different types of jobs in the system. The meeting took place Thursday at the Hamilton County Schools central office meeting room on the Hickory Valley Road campus.

This summer, Hamilton County teachers received a 3% raise, and the minimum wage for classified employees in the school district -- those who are paid hourly -- was raised to $15 an hour.

Though the pay increase will likely attract fresh talent during a national teacher and worker shortage -- or at least that's the hope -- it has also caused wage compression issues for classified employees who have worked at Hamilton County Schools for years.

Wage compression occurs when organizations make adjustments to salary or pay to recruit new workers but don't offer market adjustments to longtime employees. This creates a situation in which new employees are making the same amount as someone with more knowledge and experience at the organization.

Karin Hawkins, secretary at Normal Park Museum Magnet Upper School, said she's worked at the district for 15 years.

"I've got multiple secretaries who just started this year, some last year, making the exact same amount (as me)," Hawkins said in a phone call. "My biggest complaint is that I thought I had earned my right as a top secretary in regards to my income, and come to find out that has no bearing, apparently."

Hawkins shared that she started as a clerical assistant in 2006 making $9.35 per hour. In 2008, she was promoted to secretary and received a pay jump to $14.17. Now, she earns $22.91 -- but it's not much more than others who have started recently.

"It's a great company to work for," Hawkins said. "Everybody is wonderful that works there. I love everybody I work with. The benefits are incredible. But, you know, I just want to feel worthy every time I walk in there."

Hawkins decided to go to the school board about the matter.

"I feel secretaries' responsibilities do not match the rate of pay, not in the competitive business world and certainly not with recent inflation," Hawkins told board members during a meeting Thursday. "Last week, I learned I'm only making $1.27 more an hour than someone who started as a secretary a month ago. And I'm making the exact same amount as another first-year secretary. Suddenly, I went from feeling appreciated and valued to feeling angry, taken advantage of and invisible."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Board of Education considers better employee compensation packages)

Superintendent Justin Robertson said the district is aware of the wage compression that has occurred, but in order to be competitive, starting wage and salary increases needed to be addressed first.

"Not only do we have to recruit great talent, but we've got to retain the talent that we currently have," Robertson said Thursday. "We've got to look at competitive total rewards. We're not just competing anymore with Catoosa County, Cleveland City Schools, Bradley County, we're competing with BlueCross and other businesses."

Now that starting pay is more competitive, Robertson said it's time to shift focus.

"The reality of this is, it's hard," he said, adding the district will rely on experts and compensation studies to address wage compression.

Board members agreed with Robertson.

"It's like a rabid skunk," board member Rhonda Thurman, R-Hixson, said Thursday. "Everybody knows it needs to die, and nobody wants to stomp it. I think it's time we stomp it."

The board will start exploring options in the near future and attempt to come up with solutions before the next budget season.

"I absolutely agree with many of the comments up here," Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, an independent of Chattanooga, said Thursday. "We have to stay competitive to get great talent, but we can't accomplish our goals without that great talent."

Hawkins said she felt heard following the meeting and feels the administration is taking her concerns seriously. She has also received a lot of support from fellow employees.

"The teachers, obviously, are always the star of the show," she said. "So, none of us have felt like we really could speak up. I was just amazed at how many people have a story and didn't know that they could speak up, or don't know who to speak up to."

Hawkins said she now feels hopeful for change.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.