Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s budget plan includes a raise for all state employees, who on average are the lowest-paid in the nation.
“We're going to invest in the state workforce,” state budget director Dan Haug said. “We have had some studies done and we had employees below what the market minimums were, so we're going to try to get almost all of our employees up to that.”
If the state doesn’t, it may lose more employees to the private sector. That would contribute to the record turnover in agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Department of Corrections — turnover that officials said has become too costly to ignore both in expense and impact.
This fiscal year, most of Missouri’s state workers received a small raise ($700 for those making below $70,000 and 1 percent for those above). And Parson has proposed boosting salaries by 3 percent come July.
Plus, an estimated 4,000 people would get a separate raise to bring their salaries closer to the private market. A study commissioned by the state in 2016 found Missouri’s base salary for employees, on average, to be 10 percent lower than comparable salaries in the private market.
Overall, Missouri ranked last among 50 states in average employee pay at $37,476, trailing neighboring states like Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Kentucky. The Missouri Department of Transportation has even said an estimated 20 percent of its workforce may be eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Turnover plagues agencies
State agencies hope the pay raises stem the high turnover. Many of the people driving plows and treating roads for the Missouri Department of Transportation this winter are new. The department estimates turnover in the Kansas City region alone is approaching 20 percent.
“As we were trying to hire people and get them ready for plowing, there are advertisements in the Kansas City region for a similar type of work,” agency Director Patrick McKenna said. “People that require a commercial driver’s license and otherwise but advertised in the $21-an-hour range, our compensation is considerably less than that.”
McKenna said the agency could lose up to $30 million in this fiscal year due to the turnover, an estimate that factors in not only the hard costs of processing applications and background checks, but also the cost of lower productivity.
“We have to then go through the training and onboarding of the individuals,” McKenna said. “You're taking people away from their other duties in order to do that. There’s a learning curve.”
Another agency dealing with a high turnover is the Department of Corrections. During a recent House Budget Committee hearing, its staffers said 40 percent of corrections officers are in their first year on the job.
Some legislators called the situation unacceptable, and want to ensure the officers get a raise. “We are a public embarrassment,” Grant City Republican Rep. Allen Andrews said. “Everything’s just like imploding, and if it doesn’t get done this year. I have grave concern about what could happen.”
During the hearing, agency Director Anne Precythe and her staff outlined the planned consolidation of the Crossroads and Western Missouri Correctional Facilities, both in Cameron. The proposal would free up more than $8 million in raises for employees.
The governor has also signed off on the Department of Transportation’s pay-raise plan, which will cost about $5 million.
‘At a tipping point’
One state union leader said a key issue is salary compression: Long-term employees who are stuck on the same pay level, especially after the 2008 economic downturn.
“People never move. They'll sit on the same step for 10 years,” said Danny Holman, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 61. “They may get an across the board, they may not get an across the board. People have gone four or five years without a pay raise.”
Council 61 represents employees in several state agencies in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.
The stagnant pay, along with rising costs of insurance, is leading some workers to cross state lines or go to the private sector, Holman said.
“I believe that the state of Missouri is at a tipping point,” he said. “If we can't make it so that they can survive working for the state of Missouri, the state of Missouri is going to lose those long-term dedicated employees.”
Democrats believe raises for state employees are long overdue, but question the governor’s overall plans for the state workforce. While Parson has budgeted $48.4 million for the raises, he also wants to cut 436 positions through attrition.
"Bills are still piling up, and there is so some inflation with prices going up and these folks aren’t getting any raises,” said Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City. “But then if you have to cut positions to give those raises, it's kind of like you're cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
State legislators will have to consider whether to go along with the governor’s proposals. They can also decide to give less toward state employees’ raises — if any at all.
Samuel King is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelKingNews