How many human resource employees does a local government, or a local government enterprise, need to function effectively?

Judging by the dramatically different staffing levels of two H.R. departments supervised by the same set of elected officials, the answer to that question is not as straightforward as you might expect.

The City of Colorado Springs, including enterprises such as the airport and the Pikes Peak Highway, has 2,455 employees. The city human resources department, decimated by the cost-cutting and layoffs of recent years, has 15 employees.

Colorado Springs Utilities, with 1,786 full-time equivalent positions, has 67 people under the umbrella of human resources. The effective number of H.R. employees is actually 58, said utilities spokeswoman Natilia Sibert, since nine of the 67 are high school students who participate in an internship program.

CSU’s policies are determined by the Utilities Board, which consists, by law, of the nine members of City Council, who in turn select a utilities director. Just as City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graff reports directly to council, so too does utility CEO Jerry Forte.

Another city enterprise, Memorial Health System, also is responsible to city council, albeit indirectly. The council selects the members of an independent board, which in turn hires a CEO to manage the day-to-day operations of the hospital system.

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Memorial has 4,538 employees, who are served by an H.R. department of 19 people. Department head Carlene Crall said that she’s “adequately” staffed, and contemplates neither layoffs nor new hires.

But Memorial’s staffing is not as lean as it seems at first glance, since many of those counted as employees are professionals associated with Memorial, such as doctors and psychologists, who would rarely, if ever, access the system’s H.R. services.

It would seem that the city and its major enterprises oscillate between extremes.

A study several years ago by the Bureau of National Affairs found that, “a survey of 414 H.R. departments from a variety of manufacturing, non-manufacturing and non-business industries indicate that the median ratio of H.R. department staff to total headcount is one human resource employee for every 100 workers. This H.R. staff ratio has held steady during the 26-year history of the survey.

“The median H.R. staff ratio has never fallen below 0.9 per 100 or climbed above 1.1 for every 100 employees in the work force … H.R. staff ratios tend to decline as total headcount increases.”

Government employers’ H.R. staff ratios are somewhat lower than those prevailing in the private sector. According to the BNA survey, “Among non-business employers (including education and government), the median ratio of human resource department staff to total headcount was 0.9 H.R. employee for every 100 workers served.”

With 15 H.R. employees, the city’s ratio is well below the surveyed level, with about one H.R. employee for every 163 workers. Memorial Health System’s ratio is even less, with a single H.R. person for every 238 employees.

But CSU is on the other side of the employment curve, with one H.R. professional for every 30 employees.

Just what do all these utilities H.R. folks do?

According to Sibert, they all have specific duties that are important, and in some cases critical, to the smooth functioning of the organization.

Two employees supervise the “futures” program and train the nine high school age interns in the program.

Two are responsible for employees in “technical craft training.”

Four are “instructional design trainers.”

Ten are engaged in “business skills development,” including diversity training, automated meter reading and other employment-related skills.

Three are responsible for dealing with employee payroll concerns.

One is in tech support.

Four have essentially administrative duties, including records management and purchasing.

Six administer employee benefits, including FMLA and wellness programs.

Five are responsible for “comprehensive performance management.”

Four manage employee relations, and monitor continuing compliance with ADA and EEO.

One has the job of “organizational development,” keeping employees informed about anticipated organizational changes and/or new initiatives.

Four are busy with staffing and recruitment — “screening, testing and pre-employment examinations.”

And finally, three are managers, responsible for hiring/firing, setting goals and implementing strategic plans.

With 15 city H.R. employees compared to 58 at utilities, how does the department manage to fulfill all of its functions?

“We’re particularly lean,” Crossey said, “especially given what we do.”

And the budget cuts have had their effect. In a memo to city staff on Tuesday, Crossey spelled out the consequences

“Due to budget cuts, general access to the H.R. office will be limited,” she wrote. “The office doors eventually will be closed. An automated telephone system to access the Human Resources Department will be used.

“Effective Monday, March 16, 2009, the H.R. office will be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, although staff will be available by telephone and appointment from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“Once staffing is unavailable due to the RIF, the H.R. office will be closed. Please remember, staff will still be available by telephone and appointment from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

Crossey stressed that, since the city underwrites its own employee health care plan, her H.R. staff has a complex set of responsibilities that extend beyond simple benefit management.

“I spend at least a third of my time on medical issues,” she said.

Asked to compare her department’s staffing level to that of Colorado Springs Utilities, Crossey pointed out that many of CSU’s H.R. employees are engaged in training functions that are not traditionally the function of H.R. departments.

But, she confessed, it’s hard not to be a little envious.

“You’re talking to Cinderella,” she said wistfully.