Salaries for Missouri state employees rank near the bottom of the nation. To change that, some state legislators on Thursday called for making a raise a priority in coming years.
Joined by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said they want a five-year plan to raise those salaries. They did not outline a specific plan Thursday, but said they hoped to get the discussion started.
With an average salary of $40,000, Missouri ranks No. 50 in the country in state employee wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It puts Missouri lower than each surrounding state. Illinois has the highest of surrounding states’ wages at about $65,000.
The Missouri Department of Economic Development. says Missouri has the 17th lowest cost of living in the country, but none of the 16 states ranked above pay their state workers less, on average, than Missouri does. Lawmakers want to see the average rise closer to $45,000 a year.
"State employee jobs are not always easy," Barnes said. "They are often very difficult. And by the time they get trained, then what happens? You have state contractors who have been outsourced and they start offering them (state workers) money to come and do essentially the same thing for more pay.
"It would make far more sense to have state employee salaries commensurate with where we are in the national rankings of the cost of living."
Wages increased by 10 percent from 2007-09. The highest increase since then was in 2013, when salaries were raised by 2 percent for those making less than $70,000 a year. As of now, no wage increases are expected in the fiscal year 2016 budget. The Senate plans to debate and pass the House's budget bills next week.
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, agreed there are times when state employee wages can be raised, but much of the money has gone elsewhere in recent years.
"All the general revenue growth we get now goes to expanding welfare and it has now for several years," Schaefer, R-Columbia, said. "While we've cut back every year on education, infrastructure funding and a lot of other things, we've taken money from those things in addition to any general revenue increases we have and put it toward growing Medicaid and other welfare programs.
"Those are going to have to come into balance with the rest of the state budget, including with what we pay state workers."
The lack of wage increases has made it hard for Missouri to keep positions filled, according to Jeff Mazur, executive director of AFSCME.
"We're 50th in pay and when you rank the cost of living of other states, we're 34th in cost of living. Those things don’t match and that’s a real problem for the people that do this work," Mazur said.
A recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch documented the high turnover rates among Missouri state employees. It noted that turnover rates "vary widely across departments" but "are highest in agencies with large numbers of low-paid workers who deal with challenging circumstances, such as the departments of social services, public safety and mental health — which had a 26 percent turnover rate, the highest of any agency."
Barnes and others acknowledged the salary growth won't happen in just one year; the goal is to make it a "priority" in future state budget discussions. The state legislature needs to start thinking about it now, Nasheed said.
"While gas prices steadily rise, food prices steadily rise, the workers' pay is at a standstill," Nasheed said. "We have to say enough is enough."
More info on the campaign can be found at raisemowages.com.
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