State employees continue to discuss walkout

by Ben Felder  

Days after a state employee association said its members were ready to strike alongside teachers, planning is underway on what that would look like.

The state’s largest teachers union has called for an April 2 strike if the state Legislature fails to meet a demand for around $812 million in new funding this fiscal year, increasing to more than $1.4 billion after three years.

Last week, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association board of directors voted to move forward on its own work stoppage plan if lawmakers fail to approve $213 million in state employee pay raises, a figure included in the teachers union’s demands.

At least 50 school boards have expressed a willingness to close schools or support teachers in the event of a strike, according to Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

However, a strike by state employees could be more complicated.

“It’s a little bit different for us than it is for educators,” said Tom Dunning, communications director for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

“If educators are out for a certain number of days those missed days can be accounted for, like using snow days or extending the school day. I think that’s true for some state employees, as well. But we are still trying to determine what that looks like.”

Dunning said he expects employees from every major state agency to participate in a strike if it happens.

The state workers association has asked all state employees to submit an annual leave request for April 2.

“Our goal is to shut down or have reduced services at as many worksites as possible on that day,” the association said in an email to its members.

The state employees association has been meeting with state agency leaders this week, including a Monday meeting with Department of Human Services Director Ed Lake.

“Once the OPEA plan is finalized and provided to us, we will provide guidance to employees who choose to participate,” DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said.

Powell said the discussions in Monday’s meeting centered on “the health and safety of the people we serve,” and making sure vital services remain.

For employees in other agencies a walkout can be more complicated, especially for workers at 24-hour facilities, such as prisons and juvenile detention centers.

“As far as OJA employees are concerned, they want to do a walkout, I want to walk out,” said Shanorma Stewart, a youth guidance specialist for the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.

“The dilemma that we are running into is the type of repercussions that would come with it. We can’t just shut down everything and it will be OK.”

Stewart, whose annual base salary is around $24,000, said she suspects OJA employees will take shifts going to the Capitol to protest.

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.

Earlier this week, leaders with the teachers union said the state Legislature has shown a lack of urgency in meeting their demands.

In a Wednesday video message, Priest said responses from Gov. Mary Fallin and House leadership was “not good enough.”

“We aren’t bluffing,” Priest said.

However, Priest said she was “cautiously optimistic” about talks in the Senate.

Stewart said she’s also optimistic that state employees can push lawmakers to increase their funding support for state agencies and their workers.

“We do some of the most important work in the state,” Stewart said. “The kids I work with are going to be our future teachers, future lawyers, future doctors and future lawmakers.”


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