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Idaho Ignores Job Market Analysis, Gives Raises to AG Office

A $1.2 million study found that the state should offer 4 percent merit-based raises to make salaries more competitive. Instead, lawmakers approved select raises, including an 11 percent increase for Raúl Labrador’s office.

Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chairs Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, direct questions to Boise State President Marlene Tromp following her presentation, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, at the Statehouse in Boise. The state is facing an increasingly high turnover rate among employees, and officials have conflicting opinions on how to address the problem.
Darin Oswald/TNS
(TNS) — The Idaho Legislature last year commissioned a job market study to find out how the state could make employee salaries more competitive amid significant turnover.

The study decided the state, Idaho’s largest employer, should offer 4 percent merit-based raises this year, along with additional hikes over the next two years for highly competitive job fields, such as public safety, nursing and information technology.

Budget-setting lawmakers last month rejected the recommendations, opting instead for statewide hourly raises, and in recent weeks the committee directed enhanced raises to select agencies. That included an 11 percent total raise for employees at Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s office.

Labrador told lawmakers that his attorneys are earning less than other public employers. But his office was excluded as a priority in the job market study.

Idaho’s top human resources official warned the moves by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) could aggravate the factors driving high turnover, which reached 22 percent statewide last year.

Approving raises on an agency-by-agency basis will cause deeper pay inequity and rouse frustrations among employees who end up on the “losing” side of the committee’s decisions, said Lori Wolff, administrator of the Division of Human Resources.

The selective approach may also lead to conflicts with a law requiring that state employees who have similar duties receive proportional compensation.

“The state of Idaho is one employer, and it is our responsibility to treat all state employees similarly and make compensation decisions that are fair and data-driven,” Wolff told the Idaho Statesman by email.

House Republicans, who carried the effort to reject the study’s recommendations, said hourly raises benefit lower-earning employees, and they want to give agency directors more flexibility to target raises where they’re most valuable.

“One-size-fits-all doesn’t work in the marketplace when certain positions have more value,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, R- Idaho Falls, who co-chairs JFAC. “If we want to have high-quality state employees, we need to find some way to compensate them for the value of the work that they bring to state government.”

Low Pay for Licensed Jobs Leading to High Turnover

The 2022 job market analysis by the Division of Human Resources and private consultants — which cost $1.2 million — found that the state is losing highly trained workers to public- and private-sector employers with more competitive pay.

Last year’s turnover rate was nearly double the rate a decade ago, leaving about 2,500 state jobs unfilled, according to the analysis. While Idaho’s health care and retirement benefits are competitive, state salaries are lagging 31 percent behind the private sector and 14 percent behind other public sector employers, including city, county and state governments throughout the West.

The most difficult positions to fill require specific degrees, certifications or licensing and also have competitive wages in the job market, Wolff said.

“Turnover is one problem, but filling those positions once they are vacant is a whole new challenge,” she said.

The market researchers recommended a two-year plan providing 8.5 percent merit-based raises to all state employees, along with additional raises targeted at the hard-to-fill positions. In the first year, all employees would be eligible for 4 percent merit raises, while public safety officers certified by Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) would get 10 percent.

The second-year proposal, which the Legislature would have considered in 2024, included 4.5 percent statewide merit raises with 14 percent total raises for engineering, information technology and health care jobs.

The Legislature’s Joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee accepted the first phase of the plan. Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, also endorsed it.

“The governor’s recommendation ensured parity by paying comparable employees similarly across agencies,” Madison Hardy, Little’s spokesperson, said by email. Little “still believes” his pay raise proposal is “an informed, well-researched, and data-driven approach for addressing the greatest needs within the state workforce.”

But there was “considerable interest” in the House Republican caucus to go with the hourly pay increase, Rep. Matthew Bundy, R- Mountain Home, who co-chairs the compensation committee, told the Statesman by phone.

A $1.20 hourly raise would surpass a 4 percent raise for state employees who earn $30 per hour or less. Those above that threshold would see less than 4 percent raises from the baseline statewide increase, although they could see additional raises, depending on where lawmakers choose to direct wage enhancements.

“I would rather see the bottom move up a little faster than the top,” House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, who was involved in private discussions about the raise proposals, told reporters Wednesday. “The Legislature, they’re trying to do what’s right and make the exceptions that are legitimate and warranted.”

Wolff said that an hourly increase could worsen existing wage compression. Compression exists when there is little separation in pay between employees with different levels of training and experience.

“The flat rate increase moves individuals in lower pay grades up in their salary increase more quickly than those in higher pay grades, resulting in those who have been employed the longest and work in some of the most highly qualified jobs and positions to be rewarded less,” she said.

Attorney General’s Pay Already Competitive, Study Says

Meanwhile, JFAC is making exceptions for select agencies and offering enhanced raises on top of $1.20 per hour, including to Idaho State Police — the raises were comparable to the governor’s 10 percent recommendation for public safety officers — and the attorney general’s office.

The study recommended 4 percent raises for Labrador’s employees, equal to the recommendation for all state employees.

“Analysis on salaries for attorney general positions when compared to other Idaho county and city positions showed that salaries in the AG’s office were competitive and, in many cases, paid higher than city and county positions,” Wolff said.

Horman said Labrador “made a case” for legal assistants and other administrative positions needing raises, as well as attorneys, and new information emerged between the study and JFAC’s vote.

Attorneys in Labrador’s office earn $46.57 per hour on average, according to data from the attorney general’s office. That’s compared to $46.66 hourly among Boise city attorneys and a little over $51 hourly among Ada County attorneys. Labrador, a Republican, noted to JFAC that there’s a wider gap — about $20,000 annually in one case — between experienced attorneys.

JFAC unanimously approved 11 percent raises for all staff in the attorney general’s office. If that’s approved by the House and Senate, it would be the second consecutive year the office receives 11 percent raises. But last year, when former Attorney General Lawrence Wasden held the office, only attorneys got raises.

Emily Kleinworth, a spokesperson for Labrador, said that attorneys and staff in the office have been “significantly underpaid” compared to other public-sector legal employees in the region.

“Attorney General Labrador’s requests to JFAC aim to correct nearly two decades of neglect, ensure his employees are adequately resourced to carry out the state’s legal business, and allow the office to continue attracting the best legal and law enforcement talent,” Kleinworth said by email.

Bundy said the attorney general wage hikes — which add up to about $3.5 million — are “targeted” to “keep highly trained people that are already in the system.”

‘Winners and Losers’: Pay Equality in Question

The budget committee also approved 5 percent raises for community college employees last week. That was slightly more than the job market study’s 4 percent recommendation. Sen. Kevin Cook, R- Idaho Falls, who co-chairs the compensation committee, said that while he supports the colleges, JFAC is playing favorites with selective pay enhancements.

“We’re picking winners and losers here,” Cook told the committee after approving the college raises last week. “We did it yesterday in a budget for the attorney general, and here we’re doing it again. Do we believe what we voted for, a $1.20, or do we not?”

Cook ultimately supported directing raises at select agencies, including the attorney general’s office.

After approving Labrador’s 11 percent raise request, JFAC approved similar raises for the State Appellate Public Defender’s Office, to satisfy a state law requiring parity. The law would forbid the Legislature from raising pay for state prosecutors without treating public defenders similarly.

JFAC made all staff in the attorney general’s office eligible for raises, and Labrador’s office has additional jobs that exist in other agencies, such as administrative assistants, information technology analysts and human resource specialists, according to the state’s salary database.

During a Feb. 17 meeting, Little’s budget chief warned JFAC members that the state needs to pay employees with similar jobs comparable wages, regardless of which agency they work in. That’s why the governor’s recommendation on public safety officer raises included hikes for all POST-certified officers, because it covered employees across agencies, Alex Adams, administrator of the Idaho Division of Financial Management, told the budget committee.

“If you start treating those separately, it could potentially lead to issues,” Adams said.

Agency budgets will need approval from the full House and Senate. The two chambers are considering budget bills in the coming days and weeks.

©2023 The Idaho Statesman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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