Have you ever called the police to report something, only to wait on hold and hang up out of frustration? In Merced County, chances are the person on the other end of the line probably feels the same way.
Local dispatcher Andrew Gallagher has been a lone voice in calling attention to the problem of staffing and retention among Merced County’s dispatchers for months now. According to him, low pay has led to a shortage of qualified workers for a vital public service that can have life or death consequences.
For most of the last three years, he said, the county dispatch station in Atwater has been working at minimum staffing levels. There are only two county dispatchers working on an average day and they cover all of unincorporated Merced County, from Santa Nella in the west to Snelling in the north.
The high volume of calls they receive means a lot of their attention goes to emergencies at the expense of less urgent calls. Gallagher said it has made it hard for dispatchers to provide the help they want to people in the community.
“It’s the small stuff. You have to put someone on hold because their neighbor is playing their music at 11 o’clock at night. It’s frustrating. You have to work in the morning. And we put them on hold and they hang up.”
“When you don’t have the staffing, you’re putting these people on hold and those people get frustrated,” he said. “They don’t have any idea that there was just this major incident that happened somewhere else. They walk away from that going, ‘Oh God, the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t care. I can’t believe those people just left me on hold.’ It just gives us a bad name.”
The lower than average pay and working conditions has led three dispatchers to leave since Gallagher started working in 2019. And even though they’ve since hired one more dispatcher, the length and scope of the training means it can take almost a year for a new dispatcher to be able to operate on their own.
“We need people who can do the job. Our mistakes could kill somebody,” he said. “People leave and we haven’t been able to replace them.”
As a representative for the Merced Deputy Sheriff’s Association, Gallagher has consistently shown up to meetings of the Board of Supervisors to advocate for a 16 percent pay increase that would put him and his coworkers at the same level as those in neighboring counties. Dispatchers and the County have been in negotiations since early 2022 and have yet to come to an agreement.
The Association’s deputies have two bargaining units. Unit 10, which represents the deputy sheriffs who respond to calls, and Unit 14, which represents coroners and dispatchers like Gallagher. Unit 10 reached an agreement with the County for a 6 percent pay increase last year, but Unit 14 rejected a similar deal on the grounds that the increase was still well below the area average.
On paper, the 6 percent increase would appear to put Merced’s dispatchers on par with their counterparts in Fresno and Tulare counties. Take for example the monthly pay for someone working as a Dispatcher II, which in Merced County is the most senior, non-supervisory role attainable by a dispatcher. With a 6 percent increase, Dispatcher II’s would top out at around $5,332 a month, almost identical to the $5,330 made by those with that title in Fresno. The problem, Gallagher says, is that other counties have Dispatcher III’s and higher. A Dispatcher III in Tulare County makes $5,762 a month for the same amount of experience as a Dispatcher II in Merced. A 16 percent increase would bring Merced more in line with that reality, according to Gallagher.
“We’re just asking to be average,” he said. “We’re just asking for fairness.”
Elsewhere in the Valley, Hanford police reached a deal with the City of Hanford for a 17 percent pay increase over three years to address retention problems there. But dispatcher shortages are not just a local thing. The Sheriff in Sutter County up north is currently experiencing a shortage, and even the Los Angeles Police Department is short 30 dispatchers on a given day, according to a FOX 11 report last year.
Gallagher has been working as a sheriff dispatcher for three years, having started as a sheriff security attendant at the courthouse while going to college. A job opened up for a main dispatcher while he was there and he decided to go for it. He says he committed to fighting for better pay and working conditions.
“Something needs to be said to make it fair,” he said. “And if no one is speaking up, I will.”
When contacted by The Times about the issue, Merced County Supervisor Lloyd Pareira said: “The County and bargaining group Unit 14, that the Dispatchers are part of, are in active negotiations. The County presented its last, best, and final proposal to Unit 14 on December 7, 2022 and asked that Unit 14 conduct a ratification vote. Unit 14 indicated it will do so after the holidays. The County’s proposal is posted on the County’s website. The County remains hopeful that an agreement with Unit 14 can soon be reached.”