The Impact of the Economic Downturn on Environmental Health Services and Professionals in North Carolina

The objective of the authors' study was to examine the impact of the economic recession on the environmental health profession between budget year (BY) 2006-2007 and BY 2010-2011 in the following areas: (1) environmental health department fees for services; (2) changes in staffing levels, benefits, or pay; (3) changes in staff responsibilities; and (4) the impact to the private environmental sector compared to public environmental health professionals. Data were summarized from the following surveys: North Carolina Environmental Health Supervisors Association Fee and Economic Surveys; University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Government Current Salary Index; and a created online survey of private-sector environmental professionals. Total fees in the public sector for services have risen for most environmental health departments, but not enough to offset budget reductions. All of the counties that participated in the survey either have reduced staff, pay, or benefits due to budget cuts, and some counties utilized staff in other areas through cross-training. The private environmental sector also reduced staff in response to a reduced workload. Public sector employers may have difficulties retaining existing employees and recruiting new employees over the long term in the current economic climate.






Publication: Journal of Environmental Health
Author: Weston-Cox, Paula
Date published: June 1, 2012

Introduction

North Carolina, like other states, is grappling with historic budget deficits due to the current recession. North Carolina's unemployment was 10.6% in 2010, higher than the national rate of 9.6% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [USBLS], 201Ia). County budgets for budget year (BY) 2010-2011 on average have seen an $8 million decrease compared to BY 2008-2009 (North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, 2010). The resulting economic conditions are forcing a shift in financial practices that may have a significant impact on how businesses and governments are run, including local environmental health departments (EHD) (Moore, Coddington, & Byrne, 2009). Over the past 10 years, many EHD nationwide have seen little or no increase in their budgets, even as national and state economies grew (Resnick, Zablotsky, & Burke, 2009). Nationally, local public health agencies obtain an average of 44% of their funding from local government dollars, with 30% coming from the state government, 19% from fees, and 3% from direct federal dollars (Mays et al., 2004).

The current economic recession raises serious questions about the capacity of local EHD to fulfill state-mandated tasks while maintaining a competent workforce. Are counties raising permit fees to offset reductions in budgets? Have EHD reduced staff, benefits, or pay to meet budget cuts? Are staff being cross-trained in other program areas to offset loss of positions? What is the impact to the private environmental sector compared to public environmental health (EH) professionals? Information about these questions was pursued using data from the North Carolina Environmental Health Supervisors Association (NCEHSA) biannual fee survey and from data collected on the select counties for BY 2006-2007, BY 2008-2009, and BY 2010-2011 (NCEHSA, 2009). Additionally, a comparison of economic indicators was included in the analysis using the NCEHSA economic survey from 2009 and the survey of 2011, along with data from UNC Chapel Hill School of Government annual salary surveys for BY 2006-2007 and BY 2010-2011 (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government [UNCCH], 2011).

Prior research on EH capacity focused on several aspects including salaries, benefits, funding of EH programs, retention of staff, and the impact of retirement. These studies included a nationwide survey of the status of EH professionals and a study on the protection of a skilled EH workforce (National Environmental Health Association, 2002; Resnick, Zablotsky, Janus, Maggy, & Burke, 2009). Our research utilized information specific to North Carolina in an attempt to understand the impact of the year 2008 economic downturn on EH professionals statewide. A concern in our research has been the fact that local EHD are often the first responders to EH threats, bioterrorism threats, and other disasters, and that continued budget cuts to local programs may compromise the ability of these departments to respond to current and emerging EH issues.

Methods

A survey of 24 selected counties from across North Carolina was used to compare fees for services for BY 2006-2007 and BY 20102011 using the biannual NCEHSA data. More specifically, fee data included onsite wastewater system (OSW) improvement permits, new well permits, and seasonal swimming pool permits. Additionally, data on EHD staffing levels, pay, and benefits were obtained and analyzed using the NCEHSA economic survey for 2009 and 2011. Public sector fees and staffing levels were compared to private entities that perform similar services. The counties were selected based on participation in both fee and economic surveys. Data from the private sector were obtained from firms that were randomly chosen from the members list of the North Carolina Board for Licensing of Soil Scientists (NCBLSS, 2011). Survey questions for the private sector were constructed to obtain information about changes in fees, changes in staffing levels, and changes in the duties of existing staff. These same questions were on the NCEHSA economic survey for 2009 and 2011.

The data for EHD fees were obtained from NCEHSA and from personal communications with EH supervisors in the surveyed counties. The economic survey from 2009 was also obtained from NCEHSA (2011). The 2011 economic survey was conducted using the same questions as the 2009 survey and was sent electronically through the NCEHSA LISTSERV as part of their biannual survey. The average salaries for EH specialists level I for BY 2006-2007 and BY 2010-2011 were obtained from UNC Chapel Hill School of Government (UNCCH, 2011).

Three key fees included in the study were OSW improvement permits, new well permits, and seasonal swimming pool permits. These fees were included because individual counties or health districts have the discretion to raise and lower these fees as their governing body allows, whereas some fees listed in the survey are set by state law (Public Health, 2007). An average value for the OSW improvement permits was calculated using the cost of the permits based on the number of bedrooms. Averaging the permit fee based on the number of bedrooms provided a representative sample of the dollar value for the permit. The new well permit fees and the seasonal swimming pool permit fees were compared per unit over time.

The average salaries of the EH staff in the selected counties for BY 2006-2007 were compared to BY 2010-2011 by calculating the percentage increase or decrease. The percentage was then compared to the rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) from 2006 to 2010 (USBLS, 201Ib). Additional economic information was used to illustrate the impact of economic conditions on county budgets and residential development. Housing data were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau's compilation of New Housing Units Authorized by Building Permits per state from 2006 through 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).

Results

Fee Survey

The OSW improvement permit fees cost increased in eight of 24 (33%) EHD surveyed in a range from $50 to $250 (Table 1). Permit fees for OSW did not change for 63% of the surveyed EHD, and one EHD (4%) decreased fees by $50 (Table 1). New well permit fees increased in 46% of EHD in a range from $50 to $220. New well permit fees remained steady for 29% of EHD, and no EHD decreased rates. Six EHD (25%) implemented new well permit fees ranging from $200 to $350 where previously no charge existed (Table 1). The seasonal swimming pool permit fees increased from $25 to $50 in 17% of surveyed EHD, while 83% did not change fee costs. No EHD decreased rates for seasonal swimming pool permit fees during the study period (Table 1). The combined fees for all permits (OSW, wells, and pools) increased for 83% of the counties, by an average of 47% between 2006-2007 and 2010-2011 (Table 1), a rate much higher than the CPI during that time span at 7.8% (USBLS, 201Ib).

Staffing and Salary

Nineteen of the 24 EHD had salary data for BY 2006-2007 and BY 2010-2011. Fifteen EHD had an increase in the average pay between 2006 and 2010 above the CPI of 7.8% (USBLS, 2011). This is due in part to an increase in entry level pay and reclassification of EHD positions. The increase in salary ranged from 8.6% to 29.7% (Table 2). Two counties had increases below the CPI with one county increasing by 3% and the other county increasing by 5.9%. Two counties had decreases in the average salaries with one county dropping by 5.5% and the other by 7.6% (Table 2).

Just over 62% of EHD had a decrease in staffing levels with the loss of staff ranging from one to 16 positions. Two of the EHD (8%) had an increase in EH staff, with one county adding two positions and the other county adding one position. No differences in staffing levels occurred between the two budget years for 29% of EHD. Overall, for the 24 counties, 45 positions were lost. Nearly 67% of EHD utilized existing personnel by changing their duties, while 33% did not change the duties of personnel. An example of a change in duties would be to cross-train an employee who was performing soil evaluation to perform swimming pool inspections. In 2010-2011 all EHD instituted one or all of the following: no merit raises or cost of living increases, furloughs, benefit reductions (i.e., eliminating 401(k) match, higher health insurance premiums, elimination of longevity, and reduced benefits for new hires) (Table 2). Fifteen of 24 counties (62.5%) had budget reductions in 2010-2011 relative to the previous year or 2006-2007.

Private Sector

Eighteen electronic surveys were sent to private firms that performed soil testing similar to the duties of an EH specialist. Nine of 18 firms (50%) responded to the survey. Nearly 67% of private firms decreased their fees from 2006 to 2010 (Table 3). The reduction in fees ranged from 10% to 70% (Table 3). No firms increased their fees, and the fees remained the same for 33% (Table 3). Staffing levels in nearly 78% of the private firms decreased, for 22% of firms staffing levels stayed the same, and no firms added employees (Table 3). Responsibilities for existing private-firm staff changed for 33% of private firms during the recession, while 67% of firms the staff duties remained the same (Table 3). New home construction decreased by 68.5% between 2006 and 2010 (Figure 1) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).

Discussion

EH services are often classified as public goods that impact entire communities and are not considered an individual service (Keane, Marx, & Ricci, 2002). These services at the local level are shaped by the most basic resources that are available, which are funding and personnel (Mays et al., 2006). State and local governments are now facing some of the largest declines in revenue in modern history with projections of smaller budgets for the next four to five years (Fox, 2010). The survey results in our study indicated that the public sector fee increases were not sufficient to offset the budget cuts and loss of revenue most EHD experienced, most often resulting in the loss of staff or staff benefits. Research has shown that adequate funding is needed for a strong public health system and that increased spending at the local level is associated with a higher level of performance (Mays et al., 2006).

The fees for new well permits increased at a much higher rate than other fees. This was more than likely due to a new mandate by the state requiring the inspection of well installations and collection of well water samples by EHD for water quality analyses (Permitting, Inspection, and Testing of Private Drinking Water Wells, 2010). This requirement prompted many counties to start charging for new well permits due to the added workload. The revenue generated by the new well permit fees and increased fees for other services was not enough, however, to prevent the loss of staff or staff benefits from most counties (Table 2). The revenue from new septic permits is largely dependent upon new home construction. A decrease occurred in new construction by 68.5% from 2006 to 2010 in North Carolina, which greatly affected the public and private sectors (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011) (Figure 1). The public sector raised existing fees and added new fees to help generate revenue. Fees in the private sector were lowered by as much as 70%, possibly in an attempt to become more competitive for available work. Both sectors, however, experienced loss of staff or benefits, despite the different strategies.

Nationally, almost a quarter of local health departments have privatized at least one EH service; the two most common reasons given are cost savings and lack of expertise to carry out services within the department (Keane et al., 2002). As local EHD in North Carolina continue to struggle with decreasing budgets, some services may be privatized, which would significantly weaken the local public health agency's ability to respond to an EH crisis by impairing communications and limiting enforcement capacity, along with jeopardizing the entire EH permitting process (Keane et al., 2002). Furthermore, over half of the local EHD and private firms were utilizing staff in other areas outside their previous responsibilities. With little or no funding allocated towards training and development of job skills, the quality of service may decrease until employees reach a level of comfort with their new responsibilities (Lichtveld & Cioffi, 2003).

In the public sector, many of the job losses came from retirement or elimination of previously frozen positions. These actions minimized the loss of currently employed EH specialists, but recruitment of new EH professionals essentially ceased (NCEHSA, 2011). EH professionals have chronically been underpaid for their education level and required certification as compared to secondary school teachers and emergency management specialists (Resnick et al., 2009). While EHD salaries increased during the study period, actual take-home pay remained the same or decreased due to furloughs or reductions in benefits. Therefore, though overall compensation for public sector EH professionals remained relatively stable, it still lagged behind other professions with similar educational backgrounds and credentialing requirements. Recruitment of new professionals to the EH field will certainly suffer if the educational requirements and certifications expected of the recruits do not match pay and benefits relative to other fields (Resnick et al., 2009).

Our study only reviewed salary for the EH level I position. The cost of benefits was not included in these figures. Further research into the long-term effects of EH pay and benefits are needed to understand the full impact current conditions have on the profession.

Conclusion

EH professionals were greatly impacted by the recent economic downturn. Fees in several key areas were not increased enough to completely offset budget cuts. Private firms and the public sector lost staff. Salaries in most of the counties surveyed kept up with the increase in CPI; however, many counties instituted temporary cuts in pay that effectively reduced net income. Many counties eliminated raises or reduced benefits, all of which will hurt the profession in the long run. As government moves toward a more measurable or outcome-based model, it will be critical to determine how this may affect EHD and where changes can be made without impacting core EH principles (Resnick et al., 2009). Public leaders must place a priority on staff retention and development in order to keep a workforce that can manage the shifting workload with the professionalism and education needed (Lichtveld & Cioffi, 2003). Staffing recruitment and retention will be a key component in providing an effective and efficient EH workforce that is able to serve the public in any continuing or emerging EH crisis.

References

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Author affiliation:

Paula Weston-Cox, MSEH, REHS

Guilford County

Department of Public Health

Alice Anderson, PhD

Charles P. Humphrey, Jr., PhD, REHS

Department of Health Education

and Promotion, Environmental Health

Sciences Program,

East Carolina University

Author affiliation:

Corresponding Author: Paula Weston-Cox, Senior Environmental Health Specialist, Guilford County Department of Public Health, 1203 Maple St., Greensboro, NC 27405. Email: pcox@co.guilford.nc.us.

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