Steven Unruhe is a 28-year state employee who has won national recognition for his work in a job that is not easy to fill. His state salary is $50,000 a year.
If he worked for the state legislature, Unruhe would be entitled to nearly $10,000 in additional pay for his years of service. Since the 1980s, lawmakers have rewarded their staffs with longevity payments that reach as high as 19 percent of their pay.
But Unruhe is a math teacher, though he says not for much longer. Last year, state lawmakers removed the longevity bonus pay for veteran teachers and rolled it into their base salary. At the same time, they unveiled a new pay scale that boosted the pay of newer teachers.
“It’s very disappointing and very much a slap in the face of veteran teachers,” said Unruhe, who also teaches journalism at Riverside High School in Durham. “The message from legislators is: We value experience in our own employees. We don’t value experience in our schools.”
For more than 50 years, the state has paid veteran employees with bonus payments based on how many years they’ve worked. Most state employees can receive a payment equal to 1.5 percent of their salaries once they’ve worked for 10 years, and that payment jumps to 4.5 percent if they’ve worked for 25 years or more.
But unless the legislature brings back the bonus pay in a future session, veteran teachers will have lost that benefit.
“It’s an earned benefit, and it should go to the people who earned it,” said Margaret Foreman, who lobbies lawmakers for the N.C. Association of Educators. “They shouldn’t lose it.”
Lawmakers did make sure all teachers received more pay this year. Even those making more than the new ceiling lawmakers set for teacher salaries – $50,000 – did not see their salaries reduced, plus they received a one-time $1,000 bonus.
A frequent target
Republicans, in charge at the legislature since 2011, are not the only ones who have looked to teachers’ longevity bonuses to pay the bills. In 2009, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue proposed freezing longevity pay. And in the early 1990s, Democratic lawmakers also diverted the bonus pay into the salary schedule for teachers, only to restore it a few years later after drawing complaints.
But bonus payments for longevity have often flown under the radar in state government with little discussion, while pay raises are usually among the most debated items during budget season.
In Unruhe’s case, lawmakers folded his $2,088 bonus payment into his salary for the 2013-14 school year, then increased his pay by $1,522 to $50,000 this year. So while his base pay went up 7.8 percent over the two years, it’s actually a pay raise of about 3.1 percent in the last fiscal year when the loss of the bonus is included in the calculation. (Unruhe also receives on top of his state salary a supplement from the Durham school district that’s equal to 14 percent of his pay, or $7,000.)
If lawmakers had given Unruhe the $1,522 pay raise without rolling his longevity pay into his salary, he actually would be making more money. His salary would then have been $47,912, but the 4.5 percent longevity payment would have brought his pay up to $50,068.
Until this year’s pay increase, Unruhe had received nothing more than a 1.2 percent pay increase over the past several years. Because he’s at the top of the pay scale, his salary will go no higher unless lawmakers take action.
Others in state government, including state legislative staffers, kept their bonus pay as they saw an across the board raise of $1,000, plus five extra vacation days. Lawmakers also raised the pay by 5 to 6 percent for newer members of the Highway Patrol, but they did not take away longevity pay for the troopers, which is the same as what most state employees receive.
Big bonuses at legislature
Since 1988, lawmakers have given their staff longevity pay that amounts to as much as 19.2 percent of their salaries. Those bonuses also start much earlier. At five years of service, staffers start earning the bonus pay, at a 4.8 percent rate that’s better than most state employees will ever see.
Gerry Cohen, who retired in August as special counsel to the legislature and is now a lobbyist, was the top paid employee in the fiscal year that ended June 30, earning a $196,400 salary. The $37,700 in bonus pay brought his compensation to more than $234,000.
Cohen spent 37 years on the legislature’s staff. He is one of 49 legislative employees who earned $10,000 or more in longevity pay in the last fiscal year, legislative records show. The average pay for those employees was $105,500, not including the longevity pay. That average climbs to $123,600 with it.
Providing longevity pay for roughly 300 of the nearly 700 legislative staffers costs far less than giving it to teachers. Lawmakers spent $1.6 million on longevity pay for their employees in the last fiscal year, compared with the $60 million in longevity pay that was rolled into teachers’ base pay. The average longevity pay for full-time legislative staffers was $7,090.
State Sen. Majority Leader Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican, noted that Republicans weren’t in charge when the longevity pay was put in place for staff. He said it might be worth taking a look at, but he otherwise defended it as a tool to keep valued employees.
“Those are tough-to-hire positions,” Brown said. “The hours are as crazy as any hours I know because they are asked to work holidays and up till midnight, and you’ve got everybody in the world trying to recruit them, so most of those positions turn over a lot.”
Teaching is also a profession with high turnover. Various studies have shown roughly half leave the profession in five years. In recent years, more North Carolina teachers have left the profession or gone to teach in another state.
Judges, state utilities commissioners, assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders have the same bonus pay structure as lawmakers with one significant difference. Seven years ago, lawmakers enhanced it further by giving these employees additional pay equal to 24 percent of their salaries once they reach 25 years of service.
Legislative and judicial system employees, like nearly all state employees, received a $1,000 raise from lawmakers last year. That means those employees’ bonus pay will also increase since it is based on a percentage of salary.
Bonus pay for longevity is also a common perk in local governments, although not all of them provide it. Some such as Charlotte have eliminated it, while others have reduced it. A News & Observer analysis of pay records from the State Treasurer’s office found the longevity bonuses typically run in the single-digit range, with better-paying agencies offering as much as 7 percent for their veteran employees.
Raises this year?
The loss of the longevity bonus and the lack of significant pay raises remains a hot topic for the state’s longest-serving teachers and education advocates such as the Public School Forum of North Carolina.
Legislative leaders started the session by talking about continued boosts to the pay of newer teachers so North Carolina’s starting pay can be more competitive with other states. They want to increase the starting salary from $33,000 to $35,000.
Earlier this month, newly elected House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, said he would like to increase the pay of veteran teachers.
Brown said he wasn’t opposed to boosting the pay of more experienced teachers, but it would depend on how much money is available in the state budget.
Unruhe, the Durham teacher, said state government’s interest in public schools waned after Gov. Jim Hunt left office in 2001. He said Hunt’s Democratic successors, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, made some efforts to help the schools, but teacher pay stagnated.
The Republican leadership boosted the pay of less-experienced teachers, and one of the beneficiaries is Unruhe’s daughter, Katherine, who teaches at Northern High School in Durham. But other moves show disdain for public schools, he said.
Legislative leaders have created subsidies for lower-income parents to send their children to private schools, sought to eliminate tenure and are phasing out pay increases for teachers who pursue advanced degrees.
So, Unruhe, 59, will retire at the end of this school year.
“I’m going out at 29 years rather than 30,” he said. “There’s two factors to that. One is I’m now a grandparent, and I want to be able to visit our grandson in Texas. The other is there’s just no reward for staying at the job.”
News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.