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To Keep Public Workers, States Offer New Salaries and Benefits

Lawmakers increased wages and benefits for teachers, first responders and other public employees in nearly 20 states this legislative season.

Police officers help rinse a man's eyes after the fall of the twin towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.
(AP/Shawn Baldwin)
Faced with intense private-sector competition and rising turnover, 2019 legislative sessions raised wages and sweetened a selection of benefits for a slew of teachers and first responders. State workers also saw across-the-board salary increases.

Legislators were aided in their funding decisions by healthy revenue growth. In a majority of states, revenues came in above expectations, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

To address disappointing teacher recruitment and retention and head off the possibility of more teacher walkouts, governors signed legislation in about a third of the states that raises teacher pay. Most of the raises hovered around 2 percent, but some states with low average teacher salaries provided higher raises. In New Mexico, for example, new Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed off on 6 percent raises for all school staff, including teachers, principals and cafeteria workers.


Across-the-Board Wage Increases

Public employees in New Mexico are receiving a 4 percent pay raise as well, while those whose salaries are below $25,000 are getting a 5 percent bump. Among other states with across-the-board salary increases are Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Carolina.

In Missouri, the fiscal 2020 budget added a 3 percent cost-of-living increase, following a 2 percent raise for 2019 for most state employees. In addition, the new budget also provides funding for market-based salary adjustments of up to 15 percent for about 4,500 employees following a new study that compared the state's salaries to the private sector. Roughly 62 percent of Missouri's market-based adjustments will impact supervisors and staff in Information technology, maintenance and in health care and other positions that provide direct care to individuals.

Many Missouri Department of Corrections employees also will receive an additional raise on top of the cost-of-living increases. Corrections workers will each get a 1 percent increase for every two years they have worked for the state. In other words, a worker who has been on the job for, say, 20 years will see a 13 percent increase in salary. Officials hope these compensation increases will help stem a sky-high turnover rate, which reached nearly 37 percent for entry-level corrections officers in 2018.

Missouri's investment in the corrections workforce was achieved with cost savings garnered from the transfer of staff and inmates from one prison facility in the northwest part of the state to a neighboring prison in the same district. The move is estimated to save the state $21 million and is expected to increase staff-inmate ratios, improve safety and cut back on overtime, according to Drew Erdmann, the state's chief operating officer. "Over the decades the state workforce has been very neglected, says Sarah Steelman, commissioner of administration in Missouri. "This is an extreme makeover.


Benefits for First Responders

In several states, legislators also broadened worker's compensation and other benefits for first responders.

In Connecticut, where 20 children and 6 adults were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, worker's compensation benefits were extended to cover post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by police officers, parole officers and firefighters in the wake of a tragic event. Emergency workers and paramedics are lobbying the legislature to be included under the benefit. Idaho and New Mexico also passed similar laws this year.

Illinois doubled death benefits for fallen police officers and firefighters; Iowa created a Public Safety Survivor Benefits Fund to provide accident and health-care insurance assistance for family members of first responders killed on the job.

In several states firefighters also received benefit adjustments based on a growing body of evidence that links firefighting to an increase in cancer. Legislatures in Florida, Montana, New Jersey, Tennessee and Utah have all changed their laws to recognize a presumption that a cancer diagnosis is related to firefighting, thereby providing worker's compensation without the need to prove that the disease is related to work. Several other states, including Arkansas and Mississippi, provided funding or adjusted sick leave benefits for firefighters faced with cancer.

While the vast majority of pension legislation in recent years has raised the age at which full retirement is allowed, Maine Gov. Janet Mills took the opposite approach, signing a bill that allows state fire investigators to retire with a full pension after 20 years on the job at any age. Previously, full retirement was only allowed after 25 years and only for individuals who were at least 55 years of age. Fire investigators spend far more time around fire scenes than do firefighters, as their job entails looking into the cause of fires and therefore exposes them to more toxic materials for a longer period of time."It's really important that we recognize that there are certain public-sector jobs like fire investigators who put themselves at significant personal risk," says state Sen. Shenna Bellows, chair of the labor and housing committee in Maine. "It's really important to take care of the people who give up so much to serve in the public sector."

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