By M. Scott Carter
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt’s call Monday for a pay increase for public school teachers has drawn praise from lawmakers and agency officials from both sides of the political spectrum.
In his State of the State speech, Stitt specifically mentioned pay increases for public teachers, but he didn’t talk about other state employees, such as those who work in human services, transportation or juvenile justice.
Some of those employees said they hoped the governor hasn’t forgotten about them.
“The governor’s speech was very refreshing,” said Jess Callahan, a county supervisor for the Department of Human Services. “But we need to look at compensation for all state employees.”
Callahan, who has worked for DHS for more than 13 years, said state employee turnover is high in many agencies primarily because of low pay. “If you want to have the best and brightest working in state government, you are going to have to pay for that,” he said.
Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, agreed. Zearley praised Stitt’s speech but said he wanted to sit down with the governor and discuss pay for the state’s 10,000 other public employees.
“We want to visit with him (Stitt) on the issue,” Zearley said. “If we’re going to be a top 10, we need to be a top 10 employer.”
Zearley said state government currently spends $125 million in turnover costs because public employees don’t stay. He said that figure includes the cost of staffing and retaining new employees after a veteran employee has left.
Zearley said the state’s voluntary turnover rate stood at more than 18 percent.
“People leave state government because of low pay. They use the job as a training ground then go to the private sector for a better-paying job,” he said.
And though public employees received a small pay increase last year – ranging from $750 to $2,000 – Zearley said pay for more than 8,000 state employees remains about $13 per hour.
Employment data shows that starting pay at many convenience stores in Oklahoma City begins at $13.62 per hour.
Zearley said many corrections workers make about the same as a convenience store clerk. “We feel it’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said.
During his speech Monday, Stitt seemed to acknowledge issue of pay for corrections employees, urging the Legislature to remember “the people who work hard every day to keep our correctional facilities clean, safe and operating.”
But while the governor praised the work done by those employees, he said little about how to increase their pay or how much that increase should be.
“They are on the front lines of delivering core government services, and as revenue continues to improve, I urge us to consider ways we can better improve their work conditions and compensation,” Stitt said.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin applauded Stitt for his emphasis on teacher pay but like Zearley, Virgin said she hoped the governor would include pay increases for the state’s other public employees.
“Agencies have been starved and cut to the bone for the last eight to 10 years,” she said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
Zearley, whose association represents about 10,000 state workers, said pay for state workers remains about 27 percent below the current market level.
“We have some great employees in this state but we have to compensate them properly,” he said. Zearley also urged Stitt to visit with public employees about the benefits of the merit system.
“The merit system helps provide for accountability,” he said.
He said there were areas of the merit system that needed to be revised, but that the system was necessary because it offered public employees protection from political influence.
Callahan said he was impressed by the tone and focus of the governor’s speech and the effort to increase teacher pay. But other employees, he said, needed the same consideration.
“I’m happy that we have increased teacher pay,” Callahan said. “Our teachers needed an increase. We’re not trying to compete with them. We feel that all public employees need their pay increased. They are having this conversation about public employee pay and we just want to be included in that conversation.”