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Benefits at heart of County Home jobs issue

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Benefits are at the heart of the Jefferson County Home for the Aged jobs issue.

The home has 15 full-time employees, all of whom will be out of work when it closes early next year. Though some employees may be able to find work in new positions at Samaritan Summit Village, they no longer will receive benefits from the county, which is of particular concern to those nearing retirement age.

Legislators acknowledged they’ve thought about the issue.

“People in the county are sensitive to that situation and realize the commitment that they’ve made,” said Philip N. Reed, chairman of the General Services Committee. “They’ve done a great job with that facility, but it’s time to upgrade and we’ve made a strong commitment to that.”

That upgrade will come in the form of Samaritan Summit Village. According to Laura C. Cerow, commissioner of the Jefferson County Department of Social Services, the county began meeting with union representatives early on in the transition process to try to ensure that county home employees landed on their feet.

“We had a meeting where Samaritan staff came to Whispering Pines. They said they’re going to hire over 300 new people. If they hire some of our employees, they will try to train them while they still work at Whispering Pines. Being very agreeable, they said that they would give a pay differential for experience or consider that.”

Krista A. Kittle, spokewoman for Samaritan Medical Center, said there will be 320 job openings ranging from administrative to entry-level. Many of the requirements for the new positions will overlap with the skills possessed by the staff of the County Home, she said.

Ms. Kittle said that representatives from Samaritan Medical Center talked with County Home employees about the process of applying for the new positions and discussed being available to assist with interview skills and resume writing.

In terms of adjusting pay based on experience, Ms. Kittle said, “As with any new hire, people’s experience is always taken into consideration. Someone who has no experience would be brought in at a different level than someone with a lot of experience.”

She described some of the benefits Samaritan will offer, including education and retirement.

“We have a certified nursing assistant training program in place if they wanted to take advantage of that. We do tuition reimbursement. We have an excellent 401k opportunity here with employer matching. New employees would have the opportunity to roll over into our plan,” she said.

Ms. Kittle noted, however, that staff now employed at the County Home essentially would be starting as new employees at Samaritan Summit Village.

Loss of participation in the state’s retirement system irks the union.

“It’s not the same retirement system, and that’s not good at all. When they came to work here, they planned on retiring here,” said Laurel L. Holt-Simmons, president of Jefferson County Civil Service Employees Association Local 823,

Ms. Holt-Simmons said that what the current employees of the county home really want to do is to stay within the county system.

“We’ve been working with management a lot trying to find jobs for these people,” Ms. Holt-Simmons said. “Best-case scenario, we can place them all somewhere in the county. Everybody is aiming towards that goal. We want to keep them in the county because some of them have 30 years but can’t retire because of age.”

A county employee must be at least 55 to retire.

Mrs. Cerow underscored the dilemma County Home employees face.

“The longer you’ve worked here, the more important it is to stay in the retirement system,” she said.

On Nov. 13, the Jefferson County Board of Legislators unanimously approved the 2013 budget for the county. The board initially had proposed a higher tax levy for 2013, which amounted to a 4.4 percent increase over the previous year’s levy. The board managed to bring down the proposed tax increase by 2.2 percent, in part by adjusting the budget according to the early closure of the County Home.

James A. Nabywaniec, chairmanof the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the board would try to do everything it could to make sure that job opportunities would be available to workers displaced from the County Home. He reiterated Ms. Cerow’s comments that the county had begun trying to find a solution for the jobs situation back when it first started considering the project.

He outlined the economic imperative behind the board’s decision to close the county home.

“From a policymaker’s perspective we decided that the professionals in the industry would be better suited to do this. ... Nursing beds are very expensive beds to have. ... It didn’t make any sense for the county to stay in this business,” he said.

Mr. Nabywaniec said that transitioning assisted living and skilled nursing care from a public to a private model would have the result of bringing more jobs to the area.

“This was a pretty easy call to make. In the end, this is going to add jobs to the community,” he said.

Ms. Holt-Simmons is optimistic about the prospect of finding jobs for the county home employees within the county.

“I really think that everybody is going to try their hardest to get these people to stay here,” she said. “They’re dedicated, they’re loyal, they’ve got lots of years of service. I do believe that everyone is looking to see where they can put people.”

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