Paid Time Off for Marathon County Government Staff to Volunteer?

Written by Brad Karger

Marathon County will soon be considering a new employment policy that will allow County employees 1 paid day (8 hours) off per year to volunteer at any of dozens of agencies aligned with United Way of Marathon County.

(See Krista Mischo’s article in this month’s issue of Wisconsin Central Time NEWS on United Way’s dedicated Volunteer Connection staff and its special Get Connected online database of hundreds of volunteer needs in Marathon County.)

United Way Volunteer Connection - logo

By now, it seems that everyone is aware of the workforce shortage and the bold moves made by progressive employers, seemingly everywhere, to fill positions. Employers are competing to fill positions with staff who have technical expertise, as well as passion for the work and the emotional intelligence to work well in groups.

Every once in a while at a community meeting, I’ll hear an employer representative complain about not being able to fill vacant job positions, saying:

“All we need is a warm body.”

But how would you like to be described that way? If you had the choice, would you even consider working for a company that described you like that?

In contrast, have you heard the Linetec ads on the radio selling potential job applicants on a work environment where your ideas will be respected, your safety will be protected, and a set of company core values will include open communication and environmental responsibility?

Now, that’s what I mean when I speak of a bold approach to recruiting employees!

And that employee-centered approach seems to have paid dividends, as Linetec was selected as Wisconsin’s Manufacturer of the Year in 2018!


Marathon County Government is well aware of current workforce challenges and is looking for ways to help people find meaning in their work.

It seems that members of the younger generations want to work at a place they identify with personally (while I recognize that this is somewhat true of other generations, too).

Forget what I learned in college about employee motivation . . . Engagement can’t be achieved with more compensation or showering employees with pay and perks to make them happier. This is not about offering tastier carrots.

In fact, research indicates that over-reliance on financial incentives can be detrimental to creativity and performance, as explained by Career Analyst Dan Pink in the TED Talk video below.

What’s more, public servants tend to be different than many of their private sector counterparts in that they are motivated by making a positive difference in the lives of the citizens they serve.

So, what can we do to entice people to come work for Marathon County Government?

Well . . . the answer is not going to be any one thing. It’s going to be a lot of things that comprise a work culture that supports the intrinsic needs of employees and encourages them to do their best work.

Someday I may write about all the things that Marathon County has done to enhance its workplace culture, but right now I’ll focus on 1 new initiative:

Providing County employees with the opportunity to get 1 day each year of paid time off (PTO) to go out and volunteer for an approved non-profit agency in Marathon County.

We haven’t decided to go forward with this idea yet, and we know that it’ll be a hard sell with the County Board — and maybe even a harder sell with community members, who might see it only as lost productivity.

In researching PTO for volunteering, I was surprised to learn that a lot of larger employers already have a program in place:

According to the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 2019 Employee Benefits Survey, 26% of employers offer paid time off for volunteering.

SHRM Employee Benefits 2019 Executive Summary Crop

Some of the benefits I see from a policy that allows County employees 1 paid workday to volunteer in our community are:

  • We will help our 700 employees find meaning and purpose that extends beyond their day-to-day job responsibilities.
  • We will facilitate staff education about the County and the residents we serve from a different perspective than our staff’s regular work.
  • Because so many of United Way’s programs serve people with low family incomes, there’s a great opportunity for County employees to learn about poverty and why people in Marathon County may experience financial hardship. Speaking just for myself, I used to think that poverty was the result of poor life choices, which may be true for people who grew up middle class, too. But when a person is raised in poverty, opportunities for financial success are much more limited. Maybe as a result of this experience, our County employees will be more understanding and less judgmental of people who struggle financially or in other ways.
  • The labor of our employees in support of non-profit agencies will help strengthen programs already in place to build a stronger local community.
  • Experts on employee engagement find that the 3 common outcomes experienced by its member companies who invest in programs like paid volunteer time off are:
  1. Lower turnover
  2. Higher productivity
  3. A positive employer reputation

As I said, the County has not decided to go forward with paid time off for volunteering yet.

I plan to discuss this PTO proposal with the County’s Human Resources, Finance, and Property Committee at their October 14, 2019, meeting. My challenge at that meeting will be to get a group of Baby Boomers to see the world through the eyes of Millennials and to take action now to get out in front of a workforce shortage.

If this is a topic you’d like to weigh in on, feel free to attend the October meeting (meeting agendas are posted here), or to contact me directly ( to let me know what you think.

The best organizations are not going to wait for the government, public universities, or talent-recruiting firms to solve their workforce challenges. They are going to be proactive in building the kind of organization that people with choices choose to work for.

It might be a simple as this:

The more that Marathon County is forward thinking in its employment practices now, the better you’re served now and in the future.

Brad Karger - Marathon County AdministratorBrad Karger

Marathon County Administrator

In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $162 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday.  Email Brad Karger.

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