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State Workers Lobby Lawmakers For Better Pay

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Dozens of state workers converged on the state Capitol Tuesday urging lawmakers to pass more than $100 million in salary and benefit increases and to demand that starting pay for full-time state workers be above the poverty line.

About 100 state workers met with lawmakers and shared their concerns about low pay and low funding of state services. Oklahoma's approximately 35,000 state workers earn an average of $35,000 a year, but some starting salaries are below $17,100 _ the poverty level for a family of three, according to the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

Employees are demanding $2,500 pay increases for all state workers, which would cost $84 million a year, as well as benefit improvements for workers and retirees.

Ethlyn Mason, a youth guidance specialist who has worked for 16 years at the Lloyd E. Rader Center, a juvenile facility in Sand Springs, said she actually took a pay cut when state workers received a 5 percent salary increase in October.

``They raised my insurance, so I actually took a loss,'' Mason said.

Heath Wallace, a juvenile specialist at Rader, said low pay leads to high turnover for state workers.

``It makes it tough. Out of a class of 10, we might keep two,'' Wallace said. The starting salary for juvenile specialist is currently $1,982 a month, OPEA said.

``You don't always get the best employees with that pay,'' Mason said.

Low pay and inadequate funding has resulted in ``very poor'' morale at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, said Sgt. Randy Lopez, a correctional officer.

``They're not funding the department,'' he said. The prison has 30 correctional officer vacancies and employees are having to work 16-hour shifts to guard prisoners.

``Which is unsafe,'' Lopez said. State correctional officers currently start at about $24,000 a year.

Sterling R. Zearley, OPEA's executive director and a former worker at the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, said the organization is encouraged about an executive order signed by Gov. Brad Henry earlier this month that calls for a market compensation study to provide long term direction for state employee pay.

``We want to compare the private sector with the public sector,'' Zearley said. He estimated that state worker pay is up to 10 percent below the salaries for similar jobs in private companies. OPEA estimates that the state is losing $80 million a year in training and other costs due to employee turnover.

``We want a long-term solution,'' he said.

House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, and House Democratic Leader Danny Morgan of Prague were among several lawmakers who met with the workers.

``I try to have an open door to all Oklahomans. That's not to say I'm going to agree,'' Cargill said.

Cargill said he wants to work with state workers to streamline state government and merge agencies to cut costs.

Morgan said several workers expressed concern about the level of services being provided by the state, including mental health counseling.

``I told them that we are here to work for them,'' Morgan said.
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