In today’s edition of The Oklahoman, it ran an editorial with the headline “State of Oklahoma seeks fair, affordable pay plan.”
In it, the editorial mentions the Oklahoma Department of Transportation has voted to boost base salaries for lower-tier positions – a cost of $7.2 million by 2014. The paper then says they don’t dispute some state jobs may warrant a pay increase, but the disparity between public sector vs. private sector is a good problem for Oklahoma to have because the last thing we should want is for state government jobs to be preferable to private sector posts.
We here at OPEA could not disagree more. While we appreciate their sentiment that public employees in Oklahoma should see more money in their paychecks, we feel the editorial board of The Oklahoman is missing the point. Look no further than their comparison of how much school janitors in New York or lifeguards in California make. Is New York justified in paying a janitor $166,000 a year? Is California nutty to pay lifeguard chiefs $200,000 annually? That’s neither here nor there, as far as we’re concerned. But to compare those types of jobs to posts at vital entities such as ODOT or the Department of Corrections isn’t apples to apples.
For starters, jobs at ODOT or DOC – as well as DHS, ODVA and a host of other agencies – are core functions of state government. These jobs are vital to Oklahomans from Guymon to Broken Bow. Without hard workers at ODOT and DOC, the state’s roads are even worse and keeping our citizens safe is much more problematic. To compare what they do to that of a lifeguard in California or janitor in New York is intellectually dishonest, as either isn’t a core function of that state’s government – we think.
On top of that, the argument state agencies have made about keeping wages competitive against the likes of oil field jobs is very real and concerning. In rural parts of the state, jobs at DOC, ODOT, ODVA and child welfare are under constant threat of poaching because of those energy sector positions. To allude that it is a good thing to have those jobs not pay as well as a private sector job is an affront to those who want to work for the state because they feel called to service, but are also getting calls from bill collectors to pay their monthly bills.
The Oklahoman mentions last year’s turnover rate at ODOT was 15 percent, but what they neglected to state was that nearly 30 percent of DOC staff qualifies for food stamps while a whopping 85 percent are eligible for their children to receive free or reduced-fare lunches at their schools. Is this how we want to have our correctional officers to live – protecting our kids by keeping criminals locked up but not being able to feed their own? And, last we checked, keeping criminals off the street is a pretty priceless ideal for most citizens of this state.
And, as mentioned before, this isn’t just a DOC or ODOT issue – workers at state agencies are underpaid, overworked and to the breaking point. One of the most heartbreaking things is knowing our brave veterans may not receive, in the future, the treatment they need because the state can’t keep its staff intact due to subpar salaries. We’re talking about heroes from World War II, Korea and Vietnam here. Haven’t they done enough to warrant proper care in their golden years?
The fact is, we must get serious about paying state employees a quality wage. OPEA’s plan of bringing all state employees to within 100 percent of market via a combination of salaries (up to 90 percent within five years) and benefits (the other 10 percent) isn’t some hair-brained, irresponsible scheme. It’s just smart business for Oklahoma. After all, what company would want to move here knowing their workers are unsafe and the transportation lines for their products are a mess, or that those truly in need aren’t getting the care they require?
The state must come up with solutions to ensure these jobs are staffed fully and compensated justly. These public jobs are competing in a private-sector environment and we all lose out if those jobs aren’t filled and turnover isn’t lowered.