JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Legislators from both sides of the aisle were joined by state workers from around the state in a demonstration at the Truman Building to reject the zero-percent increase included in the FY2016 budget that the legislature has sent to the governor.
The delegation of state workers formed a processional to reject the zero-percent pay increase, filing past a State of Missouri waste bin and tossing in zero percent pay increase vouchers bearing their names. The symbolic rejection of the pay plan included in the final budget for the 2016 fiscal year was accompanied by workers and legislators speaking on the matter. Many held placards bearing their names and their personal reasons for rejecting the zero percent pay increase.
Participants then walked to the Capitol, where they visited lawmakers seeking support for a solution to Missouri’s state worker wage problem. There, more legislators were asked to join the bi-partisan group from both the House and Senate who are backing a five-year plan to lift state worker pay so that Missouri’s ranking matches its ranking in cost of living.
Missouri is currently dead last in pay for state employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Missouri pays its employees an average monthly salary of $3,332 per month, or $39,993 annually, putting Missouri 50th out of 50 in state employee pay, and more than $2,300 less than neighboring states. Front line workers who care for Missouri’s veterans and those with mental disabilities earn even less, typically in the range of $23,000-$26,000 per year.
“I’ve worked with developmentally disabled adults for 17 years with the state, but still I’m not paid enough to get by without working second and third jobs,” said Juma Jones of St. Louis, “that’s why I’m here to reject the inadequate zero percent increase approved by the state.”
Jones was one of dozens of state workers in a delegation to Jefferson City from Veterans homes, mental health facilities and correctional institutions across the state.
At Governor Jay Nixon’s State of the State speech, he alluded to his budget, which did not include a raise for state workers, causing early controversy amongst state workers. Nixon also praised the state’s ability to “[trim] the state workforce by more than 5,000 positions” in the speech.
In four of the last seven state budgets, including the one passed last month, state employees received no general salary increase. In the other three years, increases did not exceed two percent. “Anemic” state pay increases have led to other workforce problems according to a AFSCME release, such as the 17 percent turnover rate in 2014 for positions in Missouri’s executive agencies, most of which turned over voluntarily.
AFCSME contends while Missouri state pay lags, the costs of living for Missourians far outstrips what state employees earn. According to the Missouri Department of Economic Development, there are sixteen states whose average annual cost of living is lower than Missouri’s, but none of those states pay their workers less, on average, than Missouri does.
“It’s about finding better priorities,” said Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City. “Giving a raise to tens of thousands of our fellow Missourians, to me, is a top priority. For me, these are hard working people who provide essential services, and if we make it a priority we can do it.”
“I reject the legislature’s zero percent pay increase because, as a single mother of three, it’s almost impossible to make a living on the low wages paid to a nurse assistant like me,” said Wendy Battaglia, who works on the Alzheimer’s and dementia ward of the state Veterans home at Cameron. “It is wrong that people who work hard to care for vulnerable Missourians are paid less than state workers in any other state. Why should Missouri be in last place?”
Some state employees hope to see a raise by 2020.
“Almost every legislator we talk to understands that state pay is a real problem, and we are trying to help them find a reasonable solution,” said Michelle Mason, a developmental aide who works with developmentally disabled adults at the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in St. Louis County. “If policy makers can commit to making small but meaningful gains over several years, we can get to a place where our pay begins to match the importance of our work.”
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.