Published Wednesday, February 7, 2018 | by Ben Felder
Eldon Johnson glanced at the clock to see it strike 11 p.m., the end of one workday and 30 minutes until the start of the next.
The half-hour window is just enough time for him to drive from the J. D. McCarty Center in Norman, where he works for the state of Oklahoma, to his second job at Integris Mental Health Hospital, 30 miles away in Oklahoma City.
By the time he makes it home in the morning, Johnson will have completed another 16-hour work day.
“I know I’m missing out on having a real social life, maybe having a family,” said Johnson, 43, who works as a direct care specialist at the J.D. McCarty Center.
Despite being single, his annual salary of just under $26,000 from the state can be a challenge to live on. That’s why he picked up a second full-time job at Integris, where he works with children who have experienced sexual trauma.
“I think I’ve been doing this schedule so long it’s like second nature to me,” Johnson said. “But some days it catches up to you and the old body will let you know you need to sit down.”
The Oklahoma state government relies on thousands of employees like Johnson who perform challenging and critical work for pay significantly lower than regional averages.
Without a Legislature-approved across the board pay raise in 12 years, and health insurance benefits that have not kept up with rising costs, Oklahoma’s state government relies on a largely low-wage workforce with a turnover rate near 40 percent in some agencies.
A quarter of the state’s 32,000 employees make less than $30,000 a year, according to The Oklahoman‘s review of state salaries.
Some state employees qualify for the same government assistance they are employed to distribute. Others told The Oklahoman they have witnessed bouts of depression in their coworkers and a difficulty in making ends meet at home.
The Legislature approved a pay raise for nearly 12,000 state employees in 2014, which included public safety positions and correctional officers, along with some health professionals, such as registered nurses.
Raises also were given to hundreds of state employees last year, and nearly 40 staffers working for the Oklahoma Legislature were awarded raises last month, including a $20,000 increase for a senior staff attorney.
However, the majority of state employees have gone without a pay raise for more than a decade, according to figures from the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
For many of those employees, their wages are actually shrinking.
“My salary is decreasing every year because of the frozen benefit allowance and the rising cost of our insurance,” said Sheri Herren, a social service specialist for the Department of Human Services in Ponca City. “I went from $1,520 to $1,480 in net (pay) last month.”
State employees receive a fixed allowance on top of their wages to cover the cost of health insurance, which was capped in 2012 at $7,691.76 per worker, according to the state benefits catalog.
In addition to Herren, The Oklahoman reviewed the pay stubs of several other employees that showed a similar decline over the years.
One worker with the Office of Juvenile Affairs earned $23,877.99 in 2009. However, her gross pay last year was $21,225.07, resulting in a decline of nearly $60 per paycheck in take-home pay because of an increase in insurance premiums.
“I have coworkers who need state assistance,” said Herren, who works to distribute food and child care assistance.
But while Herren’s pay is shrinking, her workload has increased.
Staff reductions and office consolidation mean her department is now in charge of six counties.
“I’m passionate about the work I do, I want to help people,” Herren said. “But I am really frustrated right now. I am extremely disheartened. It’s shameful and humiliating for us state workers.”
‘There are days I go without’
In interviews with several low-paid employees in a variety of state agencies, The Oklahomanheard stories of severe financial hardship, employees working multiple jobs, and many struggling with elevated levels of stress.
“There are days I go without so my daughter can eat,” said Shanorma Stewart, a youth guidance specialist for the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.
Stewart said it’s difficult to raise her 8-year-old daughter on an annual base salary of around $24,000, in addition to paying for student loans for a psychology degree.
Stewart recently lost the ability to earn overtime pay after breaking her hand while attempting to stop a fight at the female juvenile facility where she works.
“I used to live in a really small town where the money I made back then was not too bad,” said Stewart, who now works at an OJA facility in Norman. “Now that I live in a big city where rent and stuff has doubled, financially this is the worst I have been. I feel like I’m poor and I shouldn’t be.”
The average salary for the 132 youth guidance specialists at OJA is $27,591.
With more than 6,000 employees, the Human Services Department is one of the state’s largest agencies. The average salary for case managers, child care licensing specialists, child support specialists and social services specialists, which account for one-third of all jobs in the department, is less than $34,000.
Statewide, the average salary across all agencies is $43,432, which is 24 percent below the market average, according to the 2015 annual compensation report from the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
With benefits included, the average compensation is $69,731, which is nearly 17 percent below market.
Seeking a pay raise
“The sad thing is the state spends about $130 million on turnover costs each year because we have about a 20 percent turnover rate statewide,” said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.
The OPEA is supporting a bill this year that would increase state employee pay by $2,500 annually over three years. OPEA also is advocating for the first cost of living adjustment in nine years for retirees, which currently averages about $15,000 annually.
However, that level of pay increase would cost around $246 million per year at a time when the state Legislature continues to look for a way to fill a budget hole and potentially increase the pay of public school teachers.
“If Oklahoma is truly looking to move forward, we must improve state agency services now by increasing state employee pay and reducing employee turnover,” said Rep. Dustin Roberts, R-Durant, who filed House Bill 2637 to increase state employee pay. “A teacher pay raise is important but so is a state employee pay raise for Oklahomans providing services to our communities and families.”
A group of statewide business and civic leaders is advocating for a series of tax increases and other measures to fill the budget hole and fund teacher pay raises.
“We are a little disappointed we are not in that plan,” said Zearley, referring to a proposal from the group Step Up Oklahoma.
Gov. Mary Fallin endorsed the tax hike plan in her State of the State address Monday, but Zearley criticized her lack of reference to state employee salaries.
“Gov. Fallin made no mention of state employees who work in our corrections centers, care for our veterans or help families in crisis in her address,” Zearley said in a statement following her speech. “But those employees are the ones who are moving our state forward. State employees and the services they provide can no longer be forgotten as we plan to move Oklahoma forward.”
Low pay and a decline in working conditions has helped lead to a 19 percent annual turnover rate statewide, and as high as 40 percent for the Department of Corrections, Zearley said.
Stewart, who works for OJA, said at some point she would have to be one of those state employees who seeks a job elsewhere.
“I love my job and that’s the sad part about this,” Stewart said. “At the end of the day … somebody has to help these kids. But it’s a hard job that’s even harder when you don’t make enough to live.”