State employees plead for pay hike

2013-01-23T18:25:00Z 2013-01-24T16:18:41Z State employees plead for pay hikeBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — A state motor vehicle title and registration worker from Deer Lodge pleaded with legislators Wednesday to raise her pay.

“To be plain and simple, we are here to ask you for a raise — something we haven’t had in five years,” Karen Haubbert told the House Appropriations Committee. “While the cost of living has steadily increased, our salaries have stayed the same.”

She added, “We cannot afford to go to the movies or out to dinner with our families or to make upgrades to our homes.”

Haubbert said she has worked for the bureau for more a decade, but makes $9.90 an hour. That’s only 85 cents an hour more than someone who began at the bureau two months ago, she said.

What’s more, higher payroll taxes and health insurance premiums now take an additional $100 a month from her paycheck monthly.

House Bill 13 calls for 5 percent raises in base pay for state employees in each of the next two years, but Haubbert said she’d like to see workers get a cost-of-living hike on top of that.

Steve Eckels, a mental health worker and former correctional officer at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, told of a pregnant colleague who was leaving work but was called to help an inmate. The prisoner was so upset he spat in her face and gave her hepatitis C, which required months of treatment.

“Mothers and father (working there) qualify for state aid,” Eckels said. “They’re subject to feces and urine tossed at them. Female officers are constantly exposed to inmates that flash them.”

Correctional officers start at $12.57 an hour at the prison, he said.

Tami Ellis, a Montana Highway Patrol dispatcher for 10 years, told the committee she is a single mother with four kids, two of whom want to attend college.

“My only hope was to take a second job,” she said. So Ellis gets up at 3:30 a.m. to deliver newspapers over four miles every day before reporting to work.

“When we decided to do the state a favor (in 2009) and not ask for a raise, we’re patted on the back and told, ‘It was so nice of you to rebuild the coffers,’ “ she said. “Can’t you do the same for us?”

They and other state workers, union leaders, university presidents, the commissioner of higher education, representatives of Gov. Steve Bullock and some other statewide officials stood up for the pay raise bill.

In all, 25 people testified for the bill, while no one opposed it. The committee didn’t vote on the bill immediately.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda, called the bill “long overdue.” State workers in her district make so little that they qualify for reduced price school lunches and qualify for mostly free health coverage for children in low- and middle-income families.

“This is your opportunity to tell state workers they have worth,” she said.

The pay deal was negotiated last summer by the administration of then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer and representatives of public employee unions. It came after the 2011 Legislature rejected a pay plan negotiated by Schweitzer and unions to raise pay by 1 percent and 3 percent over two years. In 2009, state workers agreed to a pay freeze when state tax revenues plunged during the recession, with those making less than $45,000 received a one-time $450 payment.

Paula Stoll, the governor’s chief labor negotiator and administrator of the state Human Resources Division, said federal Labor Department statistics show federal and local government workers and privates sector workers in Montana have received pay raises over the same period.

State employees are retiring at record rates, she said, and the turnover rate is 13 percent in the executive branch.

Base pay in the executive branch of state government trails the private sector and government employees in the neighboring states by 14.5 percent. Even if the 5 percent and 5 percent raises are approved, the state employees will trail the regional market in pay by 12.2 percent, Stoll said.

“Montana is no longer competitive at either end of the pay scale,” she said.

She said about half of executive branch employees received pay hikes under the separate broadband pay plan in fiscal 2012, mostly in the lower-paying bands.

A record number of employees are being forced to take second jobs, she said, and that is accompanied by low morale.

“We’re at a precipice,” Stoll said.

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