Ned Barnett

State employees struggle as pay shrinks

If you regard government as a necessary evil, you don’t think much of government employees.

That disdain is plain in North Carolina. Since conservatives took control of the General Assembly in 2011, state employees have been treated like serfs.

The state’s 85,000 workers have received a total of 3.5 percent in across-the-board wage increases in the last five years. Given the effects of inflation, state employee pay has actually fallen nearly 9 percent since 2010, according to the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

“There’s no way we’re going to keep a quality work force when they are being treated the way they are treated,” says Ardis Watkins, SEANC’s government relations director.

For the first couple of years of Republican control of the General Assembly, Republican leaders could defend their miserly treatment of state employees as part of a general austerity after a deep recession. But even with the state economy showing a steady recovery and tax revenues exceeding projections, the clamp on state employee pay remains tight.

Even in an election year, the proposed state budgets offer little. The governor proposes giving state employees a one-time 3 percent average bonus. The House plan offers 2 percent raises and a $500 one-time bonus that wouldn’t count toward their retirement. And the Senate budget is stingiest of all, offering a 1 percent merit raise and a 1 percent merit bonus, meaning most state employees would get no increase.

State retirees, many of whom gave all or most of their working lives to state service, are out of sight and mind. The Senate plan offers no cost-of-living increase – essentially a cut – while the House wants to give them a 1.6 percent increase.

It’s becoming clear that legislative leaders no longer accept the idea of regular increases in state employee pay. Instead, they prefer one-time bonuses when revenues are flush, merit increases for selected employees and spot hikes for public jobs that employees are quitting to earn more in the private sector.

Meanwhile, the rank and file work on for pay that shrinks with higher medical insurance costs and deductions and inflation.

Wendell Powell is a sergeant supervising guards at the state’s Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh. Now 40, he has been a state employee for 13 years. He has improved his salary by getting promoted – he’s seeking a step up to lieutenant – but he sees how flat pay and the erosion of inflation and the toll of higher medical costs are making state employment less appealing.

“I’m not looking to get rich, but I expect my benefits to match the long hours and energy I put in. I work holidays and nights,” he says. “I’ve dedicated myself to the state like most state workers, and we just want the same dedication put back into us.”

Powell estimates that 80 percent of the state employees he knows work second jobs, and low pay is increasing turnover. He supervises 11 guards, and almost half of them have been in the job a year or less. The state may fill its jobs, but it’s losing expertise.

“You have new officers training new officers,” he says. “You need those guys who’ve been here 10 and 20 years to teach them the unwritten rules, the dos and don’ts. (New guards) don’t understand inmate behavior. They don’t know how things work, and that opens up the department for more lawsuits or mistakes.”

Many workers in North Carolina’s private sector may have little sympathy for their public counterparts. After all, state employees still have benefits, including a pension, and a degree of job security, all things that have widely disappeared in the harsh new world of employment defined by bare-bones benefits or temporary and contract work that has no benefits.

But the public and the state are not served well by the denial of state employees. They do important work, much of it devoted to keeping people safe in buildings, on highways or in institutions. And solid government jobs at the local, state and federal levels boost the state economy and support the shrinking middle class.

North Carolina’s conservative leaders who claim to know so much about business seem not to grasp the essential role of employees. The level of their expertise and morale will determine whether an enterprise succeeds. And that applies to all organized efforts – public or private.

Letting talented, experienced workers drain out of state government and demeaning those who remain won’t produce some tonic for free enterprise. It will produce a state government of more waste and inefficiency and potentially more corruption that in turn creates an environment in which the quality of life is diminished, and it will be harder for businesses to thrive.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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