"I am hopeful the raises we approve today will improve the retention and recruitment issues we have seen," said Councilmember Betty Guardado, who helped coordinate the raise. "More will be needed to resolve and improve our city services, and we know that  operators are still understaffed, but I am optimistic that today is a step in the right direction that supports our employees and our residents."
Guardado cited the concerns she'd heard from residents about long 911 response times and from dispatchers about poor working conditions. Last month, Phoenix New Times reported that a dispatcher had died after being required to work a 15-hour shift while she was recovering from COVID-19.
The city is investigating Pamela Cooper's death, but dispatchers told New Times that short-staffing was causing an untenable position.
"We knew it was going to happen," one said. "We just didn’t know it was going to be one of us. She deserved to retire."
Currently, more than one in six dispatcher positions are unfilled. City officials found that Phoenix dispatchers had lower starting paying than most other Valley cities, despite a dramatically higher workload. The approved pay increase will now put them ahead of all other local jurisdictions besides Gilbert and Tempe.
Councilmember Laura Pastor said that the city had studied the possible raises for over two years. A city workgroup was going to recommend raises last year, but decided to put them off due to the pandemic. Since then, things have only gotten worse as COVID-19 hit the police dispatch center and exacerbated staffing issues.
The raises are estimated to cost the city $608,000 a year, with money coming from existing budgets. The council also approved contracts with other city employees yesterday that include controversial pay raises and bonuses for sworn police officers.
Councilmembers said the raises were a good step, but that more needs to be done to improve working conditions for dispatchers. Guardado said she is meeting with Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and human resources head Lori Bays on the issue and will be touring the dispatch center.
Last month, the city manager's office and the police department officially confirmed that there had been issues with water leaks at the dispatch center in the basement of police headquarters and that some COVID-19 prevention measures rolled out too slowly.
The admissions, which came in response to official inquires by Guardado, confirm some of the concerns raised by dispatchers about how long it took for safety measures to be added. Specifically, the city said that additional twice-daily cleanings were only added at the end of this January at the request of the dispatchers' union, and that plexiglass dividers were only added in September and December, with installation finishing this February, due to delays in receiving the dividers from vendors.
Representatives for the dispatchers' union, AFSCME Local 2960, did not immediately return calls Thursday.
The police department is already hoping to cash in on the pay raises to boost hiring. Just hours after the vote, the agency tweeted out a link to apply for dispatcher positions that trumpeted the increase.
PAY INCREASE FOR 911 OPERATORS: 911 dispatchers will receive an additional $3/hr. increase in pay. There will also be raises across the Comm. Bureau by as much as nearly $5/hr. Join our team [https://t.co/c55X4jKj5m] Could someone's call for help be your next calling? pic.twitter.com/lOPXyNAjpG— Phoenix Police (@PhoenixPolice) April 8, 2021