Low pay blamed for Wayne Co. deputy jobs going unfilled

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Wanted: Men and women to guard some of the most violent criminals in the country.

Work environment: Noisy, hostile and often dangerous.

Pay: Thousands of dollars less than tree trimmers.

Recent job postings on the Wayne County website have some upset that the starting wage for Wayne County sheriff's deputies is the second-lowest of the 14 openings listed. The starting annual salary for police officers is listed at $28,284 — $29 less than the listed starting salary for maintenance workers, and $7,683 less than the salary for tree trimmers.

"It's a slap in the face," said Brian Earle, president of the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff's Association union. "This is an issue we've been dealing with for some time: Our members have not gotten a raise in 12 years. It's ridiculous how little they get paid."

The only job listing that pays less is senior clerk, which starts at $27,020.

Ken Wilson, director of labor relations for the county, said salaries are determined by union negotiations and arbitration.

He said just looking at deputies' salaries doesn't tell the whole story.

"When you take benefits and pension into consideration, the total package is actually a little better than what starting deputies in neighboring counties get," Wilson said. "During previous negotiations, the unions opted for better benefits in lieu of salary."

Wilson said the pension plan and health care are among the benefits that increase the overall value of deputies' compensation. Benefits can add tens of thousands to an officer's annual compensation.

Starting pay for sheriff's deputies in Macomb County is $45,246, while Oakland County deputies start at $34,920.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said the low pay for deputies is making it difficult to attract job candidates — and ultimately costing taxpayers money because the department must pay deputies overtime to adequately staff the jails.

"The reality is, we're seeing our deputies leave us to take jobs at places like Home Depot and Lowe's because they offer more pay and better benefits," Napoleon said. "Our deputies don't even get benefits until they've been on the job for a year and a half.

"That makes it very difficult to compete. We hold job fairs, but nobody comes."

There are 550 deputies in the jail. The county has nearly 100 vacant jail positions, but sheriff's officials say the need is much greater than 100 to cut back on the massive overtime. County officials say there are about 900 deputies total.

"We're having a tough time filling those positions," Napoleon said. "How are we supposed to compete with other counties?"

Job prerequisites add up

Job candidates for all state sheriff's departments must pass a Michigan Sheriffs Coordinating and Training Council's examination after undergoing 160 hours of training and passing a physical test that includes weight carry, a stair climb, an obstacle run and dummy drag.

Once hired, all sheriff's deputies begin their careers working in one of the county's three jails before they can move on to other assignments, such as field operations or the Court Division. Field operation officers perform duties that include serving on the special response team to help other police departments with risky operations, the Marine Unit to patrol waterways, or the Municipal Support Unit to provide traffic duties.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, a former Wayne County sheriff and Detroit police chief, said public safety is a top priority, but added he's still assessing the county's finances.

"The deputies don't get paid enough. The prosecutors don't get paid enough," Evans said. "I've seen signs for painters who make more money than assistant prosecutors."

Even after he and his team are able to go through the books to see the full extent of the county's financial state, that doesn't necessarily mean the problem with deputy and prosecutor pay will be solved, he said.

"Just because they deserve more money doesn't mean the money is automatically available," he said.

During an annual discussion between county leaders and Detroit's mayor at the Detroit Economic Club on Tuesday, Evans said he expects to be "more definitive about how deep the hole is" in seven to 10 days.

"I expect it to be deeper than we thought."

The county is facing at least three-quarters of a billion dollars in unfunded pensions, he said.

"Everything is on the table in terms of where we cut, what we do," Evans said.

Deputies work double shifts

Because the low salary hampers the Wayne County Sheriff's Office from hiring, some deputies are bringing in hefty paychecks.

The Detroit News found last year the county is paying out massive amounts of overtime to deputies who are ordered to work double shifts because of the staffing shortage. In 2013, 112 of the county's 380 corporals made more than $100,000 each.

Earle said despite the extra pay, most deputies would rather not have to work the double shifts, necessitated by court-ordered prisoner-to-deputy ratios.

"This is time they have to spend away from their families," Earle said.

He added all the extra work could compromise safety: "Tired people make mistakes."

Napoleon said he'd like to see his deputies get paid more.

"You have to understand: The deputies in this agency are responsible for supervising some of the most dangerous criminals in America," he said. "That's a very difficult job."


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Detroit News Staff Writer Lauren Abdel-Razzaq contributed.