How does Missouri state workers' pay stack up with others? Not well

Kansas City Star |

--Missouri is last among all 50 states in average state employee pay -- and state workers aren't optimistic about that changing anytime soon.

When just looking at cash compensation, state pay is 12.6 percent below market value, a compensation and benefits study commissioned by the state found.

Benefits offered by the state help improve that figure. But even with benefits calculated in, the state remains 4.6 percent below market value.

"Sitting at 50th in the nation, that isn't something Missourians should be proud of," said Danny Homan, president of Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 20,000 Missouri state workers.

The study found the adjusted average annual pay for Missouri state workers is $39,682 -- last compared with other states' government worker pay. Kansas ranked 21st; Iowa was first.

Average wages across Missouri public and private sectors combined are about $46,000.

Overall, about 40 percent of state workers are represented by labor unions, according to the Missouri Department of Administration's 2016 report.

But union representatives say they have limited collective bargaining power, and the real power for pay increases lies in the Missouri General Assembly.

"The law about public employee bargaining in Missouri is very ambiguous," said Bradley Harmon, president of the local Communications Workers of America union, which represents about 6,500 Missouri state workers at the Department of Social Services and the Department of Senior Services.

"Statute says they have the right to form a union and meet and confer with that union ... but we don't get to negotiate a contract that says a department will spend 'X' for employee pay and benefits. That's set by legislators."

Missouri legislators recognize the low wages are a problem, but say their hands have been tied since revenues are down.

"It's disappointing," said Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican who serves as the Missouri House's budget chairman. "I'd like for (Missouri) to be better than last, obviously. But I don't think that by any means we need to be first, or that state employees need to be making more than the private sector, particularly since state benefits are desirable."

Fitzpatrick said that since Missouri's capital is not a large city, it helps keep the cost of living lower, which is a factor that has to be considered as well.

Lawmakers make about $36,000 a year or so, plus a $104 a day per diem for miscellaneous costs such as food and lodging when they're in session. A pay hike for lawmakers was rejected in January, and one of the arguments was that it's not right to give lawmakers a raise when state workers don't get one.

The legislature will consider increasing state worker pay when it reconvenes in January, Fitzpatrick said.

The big question is whether budget constraints will allow action, specifically if Medicaid costs or other mandatory costs grow.

"We always thought we were toward the bottom, but the study confirmed it," said Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, a Jefferson City Republican. "We weren't able to get any money in the budget last year for state employee raises either."

Being a state worker is not as attractive as it used to be, Bernskoetter said. State benefits help, but "not enough to get us to where we need to be," he said.

As a small business owner, he said he knows that "you can't keep good employees if you can't pay them."

"We'll see how the revenue comes in next year. Hopefully we can get it on more people's priority list," he said.

In the meantime, Bernskoetter said he's working on legislation that will improve other state worker benefits by getting departments to increase flex time for employees.

Those kinds of benefits don't cost money, he said, but can improve morale.

Jason Hancock, The Star's Jefferson City correspondent, contributed to this report.

Kelsey Ryan: 816-234-4852, @kelsey_ryan


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