Amid Strikes and Shortages, Governors Prioritize State Workers' Plight
Protesting teachers likely won't be the only public employees who see pay raises and workplace improvements this year.
- In their State of the State addresses and executive orders this year, many governors are making public workforce issues a priority.
- They are particularly targeting teachers and corrections staff for pay raises.
- Several governors are focused on fighting sexual harassment and LGBT discrimination in state government.
In states across the country, many governors across the aisle are making it a priority this year to raise public employees’ pay and address other issues facing state workers.
In some cases, the raises -- which need to be approved by lawmakers -- would be limited to teachers and corrections staff, following a year filled with teacher strikes and a year in which the struggle to fill corrections jobs reached emergency levels in certain places.
While some occupations are being singled out, state employees in general are ripe for higher wages and salaries in Delaware, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming, according to their governors’ State of the State speeches and executive orders.
“Teachers may be getting a larger increase, but state employees aren’t being ignored,” says Leslie Scott, director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives.
Scott says many of her members are concerned about hiring, particularly in states with low unemployment.
So far, 16 of the 42 governors who have delivered their State of the State speech signaled that teacher compensation needs to be higher. No surprise, the list includes governors in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and West Virginia -- all states where teachers went on strike last year. In West Virginia, teachers went on strike again this year.
In Oklahoma, newly elected Kevin Stitt, a Republican, called for increasing teachers’ pay by $1,200 and bringing their compensation to “No. 1 in the region” for pay and benefits.
“The fact that [nearby] Texas is preparing to pass a teacher pay increase -- at a cost of $3.7 billion -- compels us to review and reform our state’s funding formula,” Stitt said in his State of the State address.
Schools haven’t been disrupted by workforce stoppages in South Carolina, but Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, still advocated for a 5 percent raise for teachers.
“To attract and retain the best, their compensation must be competitive with their peers in the Southeast and elsewhere,” he said in his annual speech.
Strikes aren’t the only catalyst for raising teachers’ pay. State budgets are flusher than they've been in recent years. In fiscal year 2018, general fund revenue collections were higher than projected in 40 states, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. Furthermore, there is a shortage of math, science and special education teachers in "nearly every state," according to a Learning Policy Institute report.
Few people grow up wanting to work in prisons and jails. In several of the states struggling to fill these jobs, governors want to make them more enticing with better compensation.
In Kansas, where a state of emergency was declared in February at El Dorado Correctional Facility because of a staffing shortage, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has asked the legislature for $3 million in new funding for corrections staff. The governor is currently working with legislative leaders "to make sure current officers receive a livable, decent wage," according to Ashley All, the governor's director of communications and strategy. On Valentine’s Day, Kelly visited the prison, which had 95 vacant positions and was housing 74 inmates over its limit.
“I know it’s asking a lot when I ask you to hang in there,” she told 100 prison employees. “Please don’t quit. Trust that we will work this out as fast as we can.”
In Missouri, GOP Gov. Mike Parson used his annual address to discuss his plan to merge several prison facilities and deliver “a much needed” pay raise. Meanwhile, Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts talked about investing in additional prison staff and retention initiatives, including pay increases, bonuses, professional development and an emphasis on staff safety.
While the legislature must weigh in on raises and other budget issues, governors can unilaterally enact new executive branch policies and practices.
So far this year, governors have signed roughly two dozen executive orders that directly affect state employees. Just short of half of them focus on fighting sexual harassment and developing anti-discrimination policies and training.
At least four governors -- of Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin -- took action this year to protect LGBT state workers from discrimination.
In Nevada, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed an executive order establishing the Governor's Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Law and Policy. Agencies are required to review their prevention, privacy, reporting and investigation policies surrounding sexual harassment and discrimination. The order also seeks recommendations from agencies on ways the state's policies and practices can be improved.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order on his first day in office that calls on his cabinet members to recognize state employees’ work, solicit their input and evaluate staff morale. It represented a reversal from his predecessor Gov. Scott Walker, who had a tense relationship with employees ever since he passed laws that undermined unions and limited their ability to collectively bargain.
“As somebody [who has] run a state agency,” said Evers, who was the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, “I know how important it is to have a good culture so that people feel engaged in their work and feel comfortable coming to work and feel that they have value.”
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