State workers rally for better pay

Sunday, February 1st 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ In the more than three years since he got a raise, state social services specialist Mike Wester of Shawnee has had to take part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Dixie Jackson, operations manager at Griffin Memorial Hospital in Norman, has watched her standard of living decline as she struggles to pay her son's college tuition.

And Ty Todd, communications manager for the Department of Transportation in Buffalo, has amassed $24,000 in medical and other bills that he cannot pay following a battle with a rare form of cancer.

``I see my taxes go up. I see my check go down,'' said Jackson, one of thousands of state workers expected to rally for a 7 percent pay raise on the steps of the state Capitol Monday, the opening day of the 2004 Legislature.

State workers last received raises on Oct. 1, 2000, when across-the-board salary boosts of $2,000 went into effect. Targeted pay raises for corrections officers were approved a year later, but lawmakers have done nothing for state workers since then.

The result has been an erosion of purchasing power, altered lifestyles and extra jobs for many of the state's approximately 34,000 employees, said Gary Jones, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employee's Association.

``It has demoralized them,'' Jones said. ``I hear it in their voice. I see it in their faces. Like, what's the point?''

``This is the longest time period that state employees have gone without an increase of some kind,'' said Todd, president of the 10,000-member OPEA, which is sponsoring the rally.

``If we keep getting further and further behind, we'll get to the point where we'll never catch up.''

The average state worker earns just under $30,000 a year, ranking the state 45th in the nation in state employee pay. A 7 percent increase would cost about $70 million and raise average salaries to $32,066.

Todd said the raise would restore the buying power workers have lost to inflation over the past three years. OPEA also wants a cost of living adjustment for state retirees and more help with retiree health insurance costs.

Gov. Brad Henry has proposed a $244 million, five-year plan for boosting teacher salaries and pay their health insurance costs, but he has been silent on boosting other state worker salaries.

Mark Bledsoe, deputy director of the OPEA, said Henry is expected to propose raises in his state of the state address Monday afternoon.

Jones conducted a 90-city, two-week tour of the state in January to recruit new OPEA members, improve morale and whip up enthusiasm to get the state's workforce more involved in the legislative process.

State workers equate inaction on their salaries with indifference to the roles they play in maintaining the state's infrastructure and quality of life, Jones said.

``No one seems to care that we're taking care of our society's most vulnerable,'' said Jones, whose organization represents such diverse workers as juvenile justice officers, mental health workers, nurses, child welfare workers and sanitarians.

``The pay raise is like a statement of `we support and care about what you do,''' Jones said.

Griffin, a psychiatric hospital, provides care to hundreds of mentally ill Oklahomans, Jackson said.

``We're the last line of defense for some of these folks. But no one seems to recognize the work that we do and the services that we provide,'' she said.

State worker salaries are 11.3 percent below what workers are paid in similar private-sector jobs, a disparity that has encouraged experienced state workers to leave.

``We've seen a major exodus of state employees taking early retirement and going to the private sector,'' Jackson said. ``We're not attracting younger workers because we don't have competitive salaries.''

Griffin currently has a 38 percent vacancy rate for licensed practical nurses and a 27 percent vacancy rate for registered nurses, she said.

To make matters worse, hundreds of state workers were furloughed by state agencies last year as they struggled to cope with a budget shortfall that totaled almost $700 million.

Jackson said she was furloughed one day a month for four months to help reduce her agency's costs.

``It was a significant loss,'' she said. ``I had folks in my office. They were in tears. They honestly did not know how they were going to make it.''

Many members of her staff were forced to drop dependent health insurance coverage for their children and enroll them in Medicaid, she said.

``A large percent of the employees that we have who work for the state qualify for welfare. And they work full time,'' said Michelle Kirby, an employee at the Veterans Center in Norman.

Wester, who helps needy families secure food stamps and day care and Medicaid services in his state job, said lawmakers should be as responsive to the plight of state workers as the workers are to those they serve.

``Government is easy to pick on,'' Wester said. ``But if we're not providing those services, then the infrastructure fails.''