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Top Sewerage & Water Board officials get salary hikes amid utility’s financial strain

The Sewerage & Water Board‘s acting executive director, Jade Brown-Russell, last month ordered substantial pay raises for three high-ranking officials already earning six-figure salaries, and made the increases retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018, according to records NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune obtained.

The pay raises, which came amid tough financial times for the board, included a $45,000 annual increase for the agency’s deputy director in charge of human resources, Sharon Judkins, who is named as the authorizing official in a document she apparently signed instructing payroll to issue her own retroactive pay, the records show. Her salary rose from about $130,000 to $175,000, according to agency records.

The two other officials, deputy directors Ronald Doucette and Valerie Rivers, saw their pay increase from roughly $130,000 annually to $150,000, records show.

All three deputy director positions were created by the utility’s former executive director, Cedric Grant, who was ousted following the Aug. 5 flood last year. Doucette oversees security and risk management, and Rivers oversees logistics.

In an email Thursday (Aug. 16), Brown-Russell said the three deputy directors’ raises figured into a new pay plan for Sewerage & Water Board employees that has been implemented in phases this year. The plan resulted from a consultant’s study that compared the utility’s pay scales with industry market standards, and which was approved last winter by the utility’s board of directors and the Civil Service Commission, Brown-Russell said.

She added that salary changes for deputy directors started being implemented in November, and that recent top hires had received the higher pay ranges.

“The recent action in July brought three more directors into alignment with the approved pay ranges,” Brown-Russell said.

She added: “It is essential that the (Sewerage & Water Board) remain competitive in attracting specialists and experts to further its mission to keep New Orleans safe and healthy.”

Sewerage & Water Board officials have said the agency faces financial strain largely due to revenue shortfalls from unpaid customer bills. Late last month, utility officials estimated around 17,000 customers with delinquent accounts owed nearly $22 million. The Sewerage & Water Board’s June financial results show the utility’s cash reserves have drawn down to just enough to run the agency for 92 days, close to the 90-day minimum required by bond rules.

According to an internal memo dated July 19, Brown-Russell directed Judkins to institute salary increases effective Jan. 1 for Doucette, Rivers and Judkins herself. The memo sets the new salaries for Doucette and Rivers at $150,000 each, and for Judkins at $175,000, according to the memo.

Prior to then, all three deputy directors earned $129,746 annual salaries, according to salary reports dated June 26, 2018.

Brown-Russell’s memo also says the three deputy directors’ raises are meant to align with the consultant’s study on job classifications and compensation approved last year. Noting the three deputy directors were appointed by Grant in November and December 2015, the memo says they did not receive promised pay raises despite “assurances (being) given that salary adjustments would be made within six months of their employment with” the Sewerage & Water Board.

“Unfortunately, due to various changes in leadership this matter was never addressed,” Brown-Russell’s memo says.

The increased amounts for the three deputy directors are shown on salary records for five different months dated between Jan. 1 and Aug. 10, 2018, indicating the raises indeed took effect retroactively to the start of this year. NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reviewed these records Wednesday (Aug. 15) in response to a public records request.

Additionally, a document called a “Notice To Pay Form” dated July 25, 2018, authorizes Judkins to receive “retroactive payment at the rate of $175,000/annually from January 1, 2018 through July 20, 2018.” That document lists Judkins name and title under “Approved by,” with what appears to be Judkins’ signature hand-written above her name, as well as another signature for which no name is listed in the document. The memo describes the reason for Judkin’s back-pay as “correcting a salary disparity at the Executive level.”

In her email Thursday, Brown-Russell said a “Notice To Pay Form” informs the utility’s Payroll Department to make employee compensation changes and is part of Judkins’ responsibilities to oversee.

“This is proper documentation,” Brown-Russell said.

An attorney and former French Market Corp. interim executive director, Brown-Russell served as the Sewerage & Water Board’s interim general counsel starting late last year prior to her appointment as acting executive director May 24. Her annual salary was set at $240,000 effective Jan. 1, 2018, according to the five monthly salary records reviewed by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

Brown-Russell is poised to step down as acting executive director early next month once a permanent executive director, Ghassan Korban, starts work shortly after Labor Day. Korban is set to earn a $265,000 annual salary.

The tens of thousands of dollars in raises allotted to the three deputy directors is part of more than $100 million budgeted earlier this year for Sewerage & Water Board staff salaries. But as word of the raises apparently trickled out to rank-and-file staff this week, one veteran employee described the timing as “a real slap in the face.”

Speaking at the utility’s board of directors meeting Wednesday, David Lockett, a manager in the utility’s Networks division, said employees had already caught wind of “exorbitant pay raises moving to high-level members of the staff.” Lockett did not attest to knowing specifics about the deputy director raises, but said many employees “are still languishing” as they await raises set to kick in at year’s end.

“These people could have been made whole a lot longer ago,” Lockett, a 27-year utility employee, said of rank-and-file workers. “And now they’re finding out where others are getting something. That’s a real slap in the face.”

Brown-Russell, speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, said 100 employees should receive pay raises in December as a result of a citywide job classification and compensation study. Minutes from a board meeting in February note the New Orleans City Council has approved salary increases for about 550 employees.

In her email Thursday, Brown-Russell clarified that “only 112 employees out of a workforce of almost 1,300 are now awaiting pay raises” in December as part of the citywide study and new pay plan.

View the original article on nola.com.