Personnel management in the public sector is a little different, explained Carmen Caruth, human resources director for the City of Winston-Salem.

The positive part, she explained, is that “you really are a public servant. Every day, we meet the needs of the people [city employees] who meet the needs of people [the citizens]. I’ve never had a job where I directly impact people’s lives like I do in this job. We get to do good every day.”

On the downside, the city copes with budget constraints that mean salaries aren’t always competitive. There are also the challenges of transparency, public accountability and broadly decentralized decision-making.

Caruth and Kemberly Ewing, the city’s benefits administrator, have worked in both public and private enterprises. They reflected on the differences in a recent interview.

Left to right, The City of Winston-Salem’s Carmen Caruth, Kemberly Ewing and Onnie Pleasant
Left to right, The City of Winston-Salem’s Carmen Caruth, Kemberly Ewing and Onnie Pleasant.

“In the private sector,” Ewing explained, “a manager can come up with an idea and get it implemented pretty quickly. Here we’re accountable for everything and we have lots of processes to assure that we’re using the citizens’ funds wisely, and that the city manager and the city council members are on board.”

“We have a lot of hands in the stew,” Caruth added. “We get a lot of review from different sectors, which can actually be quite helpful.”

The city’s human-resources staff of 16 serves an active work force of 2,400, plus 1,300 retirees who continue to participate in City medical plans.

With tough constraints on spending, Caruth said her strategy for retaining and motivating employees is to offer attractive benefits and attentive service. “We’ve been diligent about maintaining good benefits that are affordable. Even in years with no pay raises, we haven’t raised health insurance premiums.

“[Service] is a huge deal in this organization,” she continued. “The largest part of our labor force is blue-collar. This is not a place where you can only put information on a website [for people to sign up]. A large part of our workforce doesn’t even use a computer at work. We need to be much more hands-on.”

Deliberately, the human resources department sets an example of responsive service for the municipal workforce it serves. “Suppose your child is sick and you’re at the pharmacy and they say something’s wrong with your [benefits] card,” Caruth said, “we’re the folks who call the pharmacy and ask, ‘how can we get this fixed right now’?”

Of the city’s 2,400 employees, about 1,000 work in public safety (police and fire) and another 1,000 or so in public works. The remainder are administrative.

“In some areas, like public safety, we have more turnover than we would like. Also, equipment operators are a transient force who can go back and forth to private contractors. But a lot of people stay for a long time. Our median age is about 46. Some are in their 70’s and 80’s and still working.”

Onnie Pleasant, administrative secretary in Planning and Development Services, a group that deals with zoning and permitting, has worked at the city for 23 or 24 years.

“I get a lot of phone calls from people who’ve been transferred here and there,” she said, and she tries to be their last stop. “I try to be friendly and to listen, so that I can figure out what they want and how to help them.”

She said she’s happy with the help she receives from human resources department. “When I call them, they try to help me any way they can.”

To overcome hearing loss, Pleasant uses electronic devices behind her ears to transmit sound to implants. When one of the devices fell into a lake and insurance balked at replacing it, she recalled, “with Kemberly’s help, I got it replaced. That meant a lot to me.”

The city uses Savers Admin to outsource some of the transactional work of benefits administration and to add “expertise we don’t have in house,” Caruth explained.

“We started with Savers Admin a couple of years ago when they took over flex spending and COBRA administration. Within months, we realized they could do a lot more for us, so we added retiree premium collection and they have done a great job.

“This year we began offering paid parental leave, a new benefit. We expected we’d have 20 to 30 participants a year. In fact, we had 20 to 30 the first two months. So now we’re working with Savers to move that and FMLA processing over. 

“We have a dental reimbursement plan, which is very similar to a flex spending account in the way it’s processed. We had another vendor doing that, but it didn’t work out, so we moved that over to Savers as well.”

Ewing added: “Savers has been very customer focused. They’re responsive to the employees’ needs, as well as the administrator’s. If an employee has an issue, they’re willing to call the employee’s dental provider and walk them through the process step by step. Our plan is a little different from most dental insurance, and not all providers are familiar with it.”

Caruth continued, “The folks at Savers are very knowledgeable and they’ve done a great job educating our employees. They come to open enrollment sessions and employee meetings. They explain to people how to make the most of their benefits.”

After Savers Admin took over FSA administration, Ewing added, “we saw a jump in sign-ups.”

Much of Savers Admin’s work for the city involves direct interaction with employees and Caruth said “we’ve had no complaints from employees about them answering the phone or e-mail promptly. Employees want that level of service from our providers.”

Ewing added: “It doesn’t matter where the person on the phone is sitting, so long as they can answer accurately, give good service, be a friendly voice that people trust and be willing to research an issue.”

Another benefit that Savers Admin brings is scrupulous compliance with regulations, Caruth added. “This actually came to me in the form of a complaint. An employee said ‘we didn’t have to do that [verify FSA disbursements were for appropriate expenses] before.’ We realized not every vendor is a stickler for assuring we meet the regulations.

“Savers is flexible and helpful while still complying with the law. They’ve given our employees helpful advice, such as to scan your benefit card at the start of your check-out. You might find something you’re buying might qualify and you didn’t know it, such as Band-Aids.”

Nobody wants to deal with a cranky bureaucrat, so the City of Winston-Salem tries hard to treat its staff the way the staff should treat the public. And city employees like Onnie Pleasant can say, “I love coming to work and I love the people I work with.”

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