State workers' wages 14.6% below average - Idaho seeing more budget woes and turnover, lower employee morale

Betsy Z. Russell
Spokesman-Review Staff writer

BOISE, IDAHO - 12/27/03 - Zero funding for employee raises two years running is beginning to take its toll on Idaho's state work force, according to the latest studies.

State workers' average wages are now falling 14.6 percent below average market rates. And some groups, like state nurses, are more than 22 percent below the mark, according to the Idaho Division of Human Resources.

To bring the wages up to the market rate -- a goal that's laid out in state law -- would cost a staggering $85 million next year, an amount no one in state government expects Idaho's tight state budget to yield. As a result, state workers' morale is down, and turnover is up to 13 percent -- 28 percent for nurses.

"Even in this depressed job market where many people are having trouble finding jobs, state employees are leaving for other jobs," said state Human Resources Director Ann Heilman. "What concerns me is when the economy turns and people have more opportunities, what's our turnover going to do?"

Whether to raise state workers' pay is a major challenge that will confront Idaho lawmakers when they convene in January. Each percentage increase they offer the state's 24,000 workers costs the state budget $5 million. And with Idaho's temporary sales tax increase scheduled to expire on July 1, 2005 -- leaving a $160 million hole in the state budget -- funding is uncertain.

"I'm very much aware it's been two years," said Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "I'm very sensitive to the fact that for an outstanding group of state employees that have worked diligently through these tough times, it's been two years."

Heilman is recommending a variety of options, led by a 10 percent pay boost for the state's nurses. She's also recommending a five-year plan to bring state salaries up to the mark, which would require funding for raises averaging 6.8 percent next year, and each of the following four years.

If that can't be done, she's calling for as much of an increase as possible. Failing that, Heilman recommends one-time bonuses for outstanding employees to entice them to stay with the state through the downturn.

"We've tried to make a recommendation to the governor that reflects the situation, but is realistic," she said. "I think the vast majority of state employees are hopeful that this Legislature will give them a signal ... that they're valued. It's the state employees that have been saving the money. They're the ones that have been getting us through all this. I think they're hopeful of some acknowledgment."

The past two years have been difficult for state employees. Although lawmakers allowed agencies to grant raises if they could find savings in their personnel budgets, only 13.1 percent -- 3,174 workers out of 24,239 -- got raises or bonuses. Agencies could only use savings from their personnel budgets, not from other areas. With budget cuts and layoffs, those were hard to come by.

One agency that recently found savings to offer raises was the state Department of Correction, where workers' wages had been among the worst laggers. But the only reason the money was found was because fewer inmates arrived at the state's prisons than expected, meaning fewer guards and support workers had to be hired on.

At the same time, rising health insurance costs have meant decreases in take-home pay for some state employees.

Dona Van Trease, executive director of the Idaho State Employees Association, said, "They always look at our state employees as a place to trim the budget. To me, it's demoralizing.

"...There are employees that now have to travel a great deal to cover spots that no longer have an employee in them. There have been some changes that made a difference in the budget, but the employees haven't been rewarded for this extra burden that they've been given."

Seventy-three state employees were laid off in fiscal year 2003, which ended July 1. Heilman said some had more than 20 years of state service.

"People that had assumed they were going to retire from the state were given two weeks (notice)," she said.

Morale varies among state agencies now, she said, with the worst low-morale pockets in the agencies that had layoffs and face continuing uncertainty. But many state workers remain enthusiastic about their jobs, Heilman said.

"People get into public service because they're dedicated to their mission," she said.

On Jan. 8, two legislative committees will convene jointly to hold two days of hearings on state employee compensation. They'll hear testimony about the lag between state workers' salaries and the market, receive updates on rising health insurance costs and hear about problems in specific occupations, including nursing, science, engineering and law enforcement.

They'll also have open hearings Jan. 9 to hear from state employees about pay, benefits and other issues.

A week later, after Kempthorne has made his recommendation on state employee pay, the joint committee will meet again to set a funding figure for workers' raises for next year. Under the state's pay system, individual employees' raises vary based on merit, and the percentage set by lawmakers represents an average.

Van Trease said she hopes that when the state workers offer their testimony, lawmakers will listen.

"They need to see that the legislators do value them as an important part of the state of Idaho, and important workers that keep our state running as efficiently as it does," she said.

Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d'Alene, who serves on the joint committee, said, "I think that issue is probably going to be the major issue we have to deal with during this session."

"I'd like to see some really good data on comparative salaries, before I just jump off and say point-blank we ought to have an increase," Compton said. "I do believe we need to be fair with our employees. We need to treat them fairly, and pay them adequately."

Van Trease said she'd like to be hopeful about the 6.8 percent recommendation.

But, she said, "I've got to be realistic that there's going to be some real strong opposition among some of our legislators, because of that sales tax they want to phase out next year. I just don't understand why state employees have to be the ones to take the brunt of this budget crisis."

•Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854, or by e-mail at


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