In his State of the State address, Gov. Mark Gordon made increasing pay for state workers his top priority. It wouldn’t be a surprise if many Wyomingites might at first question such a move. Our state is generally skeptical of growing the size and cost of government. And we’ve been preparing for a day with less revenue for government, not more. But there are compelling reasons why now is the time to bump the wages of state workers.
For one, the state is facing a serious worker retention problem. We’ve heard officials in multiple agencies say that they are having a hard time keeping workers. Chief Justice Kate Fox, for example, said clerks and other judicial workers are fleeing the state for more lucrative work at the county-level or in the private sector. And poor retention leads to more departures. When a clerk is asked to cover for her departed colleague for a lengthy amount of time, she burns out herself and looks elsewhere for employment. The spiral continues.
On top of that, there is the matter of fairness. Inflation is growing at levels not seen in decades. That means an employee whose salary hasn’t increased in years is actually making less than they did before. We’ve seen inflation jump by 7.5% over the past year. The most recent executive branch salary hike occurred in 2019, and it increased pay by only 2.5%. In fact, those state employees have received only three raises since 2011 and all of them were less than 3%, according to the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information. Put more simple, state wages aren’t keeping up with cost-of-living increases.
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And salaries are stagnating at a time when workers’ health care and retirement costs are going up. Let’s take a worker making $50,000 annually. She’s got a $900 insurance deductible and pays into the Wyoming Retirement system public plan. In 2019, her base pay after retirement was $3,940. Now, it’s $3,840. And remember, that $3,840 buys less than it did three years ago.
Perhaps you’re not sympathetic. Perhaps you think public employees make too much money. Well, this retention problem still harms you. Because while some think of government workers as bloated bureaucrats and administrators, the reality is they are hard-working Wyomingites who provide the services we need.
As an example, let’s return to Justice Fox and the judicial branch. Many of us will encounter the court system at some point in our lives, whether it’s a divorce case, an employment claim, an adoption or a financial matter. With fewer judicial workers, cases are taking much longer to move through the system. Which means if you’re waiting on paperwork to move on with your life, get a good book to pass the time.
Paying for the raises is no small thing. For executive branch workers, about three in five jobs are supported by the general fund — essentially the state’s checkbook. The remainder are paid for through other sources, including the federal government. Despite the cost, now is a particularly good time to address this long-standing issue. The state is flush with cash thanks to relief aid and higher-than-expected commodity prices. That money can be put to one-time projects, freeing up other dollars to hike wages.
The budget cuts of 2020 demonstrated just how much we rely on state services. Those services are performed by real people who are increasingly overworked and underpaid. The Legislature has a chance to fix this. Let’s do the right thing and recognize the value that state workers provide not only to government, but us all.