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Mazur, legislators talk next steps in state employee pay increases

KIRKSVILLE, Mo. — Missouri’s state employees are set to receive a flat $500 pay increase starting January 2014 per the approval of the legislature and the governor this past session.

The exact details of what the governor or the legislature has planned for a potential raise again this coming session have yet to be determined, but proponents are hoping to express the importance of a long-term, sustainable plan in terms of an increase to lawmakers rather than continuing to pursue “quick fixes.”

Jeff Mazur
Jeff Mazur

According to the most recent United States Census data, Missouri’s state employees rank among the lowest paid in the nation: a problem that Jeff Mazur, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees 72 executive director, wants to fix.

“I don’t think anyone believes that Missouri is a last-place state,” Mazur says. “I do think that everyone believes we should have state worker pay that accurately reflects the work that these employees are doing.”

Each year, AFSCME works to lobby the legislature for higher wages for Missouri employees, among other issues that the organization’s members deem to be priorities. As they gear up for the 2014 session, Mazur says the approach AFSCME plans to take will be no different from previous years: helping show legislators the “critical work that these employees do,” and pushing for change with during the appropriations process.

The last two years have drawn a degree of success for those who push for pay increases.

This most recent session, a $500 flat pay increase for employees making less than $60,000 a year was passed through both chambers and signed by the governor. Additionally, Mazur says some employees received a 4 percent increase. Originally, however, Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget proposal included a 2 percent increase for all employees.

The year prior, the legislature approved a similar 2 percent pay raise for those making less than $70,000.

“In any given budget year, when we’re talking about flat versus percentage, we’re missing the conversation about how what we do this year will affect the next 10 years,” Mazur says. “While every little bit helps, those numbers ultimately don’t do anything to change the fact that we’re the lowest-paid in the nation. Frankly, most of these increases go toward increased costs of health care and other costs of living.”

Mazur says that the increase it would take to move Missouri out of the last place spot is not feasible for one budget year. However, he says a starting point to “demonstrate the state is serious about moving forward” is somewhere around 3.5 or 4 percent.

Rep. Rick Stream
Rep. Rick Stream

House Budget Director Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, says it’s too soon to say what appropriations will consider for employee pay in 2014 — the governor’s recommendation comes first, and that proposal comes during the beginning part of the year — but there is an effort he has pushed and continues to push others to consider.

Stream’s idea is to gradually reduce the number of full-time employees through attrition during the coming years.

“We’re always looking for ways in the budget where we can save FTEs (full-time equivalent) in our state workforce and use that money to pay the ones that need it a little more,” Stream says, adding that he has discussed this proposal with the governor’s office.

Stream stresses that he isn’t suggesting current employees be let go, but rather the positions that have gone unfilled for months (or longer) be eliminated, and then gradually as other retire, some of those workloads get dispersed elsewhere in the office as some of those positions be eliminated as well.

“If every state office can lost 5 to 10 percent of their workforce over the years through attrition, that would be a goal of mine,” Stream says. “Every department and agency needs to look at itself and figure out where they need to be. I’m not saying workers are lazy, because that’s definitely not true, but I’m saying the bureaucratic system doesn’t require that they work as much as they could have them work in a day. It’s not the employee’s fault, it’s the system’s fault.”

Last year, Stream says he asked appropriations leaders within the legislature to communicate with their respective agencies about full-time spots that have been vacant for years and could possibly be eliminated to help cut costs in hopes of reallocating that money toward, ideally, a bigger pay raise.

Rep. Mike Bernskoetter
Rep. Mike Bernskoetter

“If you ask [Department heads] if they can work with fewer workers, they aren’t going to say yes because that says they have been working in a non fiscally responsible way,” Stream says. “This effort generally works across the board, but we can make special waivers or compensation rules for certain employees if we need to. Those are all things that we’ll take in consideration this year, too.”

Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, says he thinks for many representatives, the issue of state employee pay might be more of an “out of sight, out of mind” issue because they might not have the number of state employees as other parts of the state, like Jefferson City.

Bernskoetter chaired the Joint Committee on State Employee Wages the past few years says the committee recommends the state hire a consultant to figure out the most efficient way to proceed.

“We need to see where we stack up as far as what we pay for positions and some job titles I’m sure are not necessary,” he says. “A comprehensive study of state pay would be really helpful because we have over 50,000 employees and 9,000 job titles.”

Mazur says the overarching issue of better compensating state employees is bipartisan.

“People who are champions on this issue come from both sides of the aisle,” he says. “If there wasn’t bipartisanship, then we wouldn’t have seen increases the last few years.”