A Waynesville attorney filed a lawsuit in state court Monday on behalf of 39 troopers across the state seeking tens of thousands of dollars each in pay increases and benefits they say were illegally withheld from them for several years.
David Wijewickrama is seeking class action status for the suit, which could then ultimately bring in more than 500 troopers that he says should also have received the compensation increases. The pay battle could also cross over to magistrates and court clerks, who Wijewickrama said also were entitled to automatic “step” increases in pay.
Highway Patrol salaries have been largely frozen since 2009 by state lawmakers and two governors seeking to balance budgets during economic hard times. As a result, a trooper who had served long enough to become a master trooper before pay freezes hit is now making tens of thousands more than those who worked the same number of years but after the pay was frozen, Wijewickrama said.
“What you’ve got is guys working out here for six, seven years making $37,000 a year, and they are working beside other master troopers who are making $60,000 a year, and they are facing the same criminals shooting bullets at them,” Wijewickrama in an interview.
Wijewickrama said it could cost the state roughly $7 million to $10 million if it were to restore the pay increases and related benefits such as full 401(k) and pension payments to the more than 500 troopers affected by the freezes.
The suit, filed Monday morning in Cherokee County, names State Treasurer Janet Cowell, state Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry and the state as defendants.
Schorr Johnson, a spokesman for Cowell, said in a statement that she has no authority over trooper pay and had no comment pending review of the lawsuit.
Perry issued a statement Monday in which he also declined to discuss the lawsuit, but said he is working to ensure that eligible troopers get raises from a $7.5 million “salary adjustment fund” that the legislature included in the state budget to reduce turnover in high-demand jobs. In January, Gov. Pat McCrory announced that roughly 600 law enforcement officers would receive pay increases of up to 4 percent from the fund, and Perry said eligible troopers received that raise in their March paychecks, retroactive to Jan. 1.
Wijewickrama said none of his clients has seen any salary increases since McCrory’s announcement, but Perry spokeswoman Pam Walker said late Monday that some of them have.
Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando