Thursday, May 10, 2012

It is time to address the salary gap quietly suffered by our state employees.

The economy is on everyone's mind these days and we are bombarded with the implications, European debt, American debt, gas prices, home foreclosures. Challenges all, without a doubt. We also witness a drive to downsize government, which is logical as the benefits of technology are leveraged in government, hopefully as effectively as it is in business. 

Government workers are being asked to adapt. As technology has invaded our government agencies, the employee has been asked not only to adapt to technology, but to master it. In a very short time, we have seen the skill of "filing" give way to the required skill of operating document management software.  Nowhere has this transition to technology been any more challenging than in the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims (OJCC).

When the OJCC became a part of the Division of Administrative Hearings on October 1, 2001 the OJCC was using eight (8) year old computer hardware technology (some "486" computers remained), with a nine (9) year old operating system (Windows 3.1), to operate commercial case management software that was not designed for a Judicial setting, and generating documents with a seven (7) year old word processor program (WordPerfect 6.1). The only semblance of a computer network between the District Offices was provided by “dial-up” modem connections which required human action at each connecting terminal. Yes, to connect the computers for diagnostic work, an employee had to manually initiate the contact from one personal computer (PC) and another employee in the remote location had to manually accept that connection on another PC.

Also of note, private and commercial access to the internet, had been commonplace since approximately 1995. However, as of October 1, 2001 the OJCC had no presence on the internet. For all intents and purposes, the OJCC had no computer “network” in 2001, and was struggling with antiquated or obsolete computer hardware and software. The staff received daily paper filings, which were date-stamped, sorted, stacked, moved, processed, copied, moved again and filed in overburdened file cabinets in dusty rooms. In retrospect it seems incredible, but at the time it seemed normal.

As the OJCC evolved rapidly into a technology leveraging entity, electronic filing and document management became the norm. This challenged state employees in the OJCC to learn about software and electronic document management. New skills were required,  learned and mastered. As new employees were recruited, a new measure of skills were expected. Job titles like Executive Secretary, Administrative Secretary, and Deputy Clerk remained, but the tasks that each performed daily changed radically. As judges became more self-sufficient, the concept of staff transcribing dictated orders gave way to judges typing final orders and all of the efficiency that entailed.  

This evolution mimicked a "business model." Government can be more efficient if it is run with a business mindset. The OJCC has recognized this, leveraged technology, and evolved. The agency has consistently and increasingly recognized the needs of its customers, a hallmark of successful business. In recent years, the  staff has also been asked to accept that state employment benefits should be delivered more similarly to the method employed by business, with employees contributing part of their pay to their retirement. 

As this transition to a business model has progressed, however, the pay of state employees has been ignored. While Federal and many local employees have seen cost of living adjustments, most state employees have not. As an example, many county employees were included in the recent mandate for contribution of three percent (3%) of their annual pay into the retirement program, just as state employees. However, many of those county employees received corresponding three percent (3%) pay raises simultaneously. The effect being an offset. State employees did not receive that cost of living adjustment. In fact, few cost of living adjustments have been afforded state employees in the last ten years. 

The web is full of inflation calculators. According to one, what cost $26,000.00 in 2000 would cost $33,676.97 in 2012. From the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. This is an increase of about 30% over eleven years, or about two and seven-tenths percent (2.7%) average annual increases. To keep pace with inflation, state workers would have required about 2.7% average cost of living adjustments to keep pace with inflation. Rest assured that State employees have not enjoyed those increases.  

Most are amazed that a state employee would have a take-home pay of $26,000.00. However, more compelling is that this salary figure has not changed markedly in the last decade, and the purchasing power that comes with state employment is eroding consistently and persistently.  

Running a state agency like a business has merit. Employees contributing to their own retirement has merit. Leveraging technology and affording state employees to grow in new job skills has merit. Accepting this, consideration must also be given to the converse, which is that paying these employees appropriately for these new skills also has merit. Gone are the skill requirements of yesteryear, come is the new paradigm and all that entails. Qualified state staff must be retained, and when vacancies occur qualified replacements must be attracted to state employment. This cannot be unless we recognize that with each passing year the purchasing power of these state salaries declines.

Some will conclude that "they should be happy to have jobs," particularly in the current economic times in which we live. That is a valid point. However, the stability of state employment is also not what it used to be. Reductions in force and downsizing are the new norm. Notably, despite these economic times, the OJCC continues to lose trained and effective staff to the private sector and to other government entities that have the ability to provide markedly better compensation and benefits packages. The OJCC recruits and trains, and then loses staff over money. This illustrates that the job market for these skilled workers exists, even if it is not what it used to be.

State employees deserve better. The effectiveness of this agency and others can persevere only so long on the accumulated good will and loyalty of the exceptional people that serve our customers every day.  Knowing that my readers cannot change that, perhaps my readers will take a moment to deliver a kind word or a "thank you" when interacting with these staff.