State employees from across Oklahoma made the annual pilgrimage to the state Capitol for OPEA’s Lobby Day, held March 10.
“We must protect what we have,” said Sterling Zearley, OPEA’s Executive Director. “We must not have furloughs or any reductions-in-force. We must reject any erosion in our benefit allowance and we must have a long-term compensation plan. The people of Oklahoma need to know our story.”
Legislators from both sides of the aisle were in attendance, including Representatives Lisa Billy, Scott Martin and Eric Proctor. And OPEA’s 2008 Legislator of the Year Mike Shelton got the crowd on their feet.
“Last year the Thunder received $60 million dollars in tax cuts. Let’s let the legislature hear from state employees.” Shelton then led the crowd of workers in a chant of “We Will Rock You!”
“A lot of candidates ran on family values,” said Representative Proctor. “But when they vote they are not supporting family values for state employees.”
“This is a tough year for everybody,” Representative Martin said. “It’s important that you are here fighting. Don’t stop the fight…keep up the good work.”
Representative Billy echoed the same message: “Thank you for what you do. Continue to push your voice forward. The people in this building need to hear from you.”
Deputy Director Scott Barger said about 1,200 state employees lost their jobs in 2003 during the state’s last economic downturn. “The state can’t afford to lose any more employees,” Barger said. “We are over-worked and under-staffed as it is. State workers understand tough economic times, and we know too well how to stretch a budget.”
Most employees who attended Lobby Day realize a pay raise is a long shot. But all agree that a long-term compensation plan is needed to bring state salaries to market and help keep wages competitive with those in the private sector.
As a tongue-in-cheek way to drive home the seriousness of the salary issue, OPEA presented a “soup line,” complete with 40 gallons of beans.
“We thought that would be a unique way to show our legislators that state employees are facing some serious problems,” said Mark Beutler, OPEA Director of Communications. “Some state workers are indeed having financial difficulties, and some are receiving food stamps to help put meals on the table. Employees and services cannot be cut any more without it starting to affect the citizens of Oklahoma.”
State employees in Oklahoma are more than 16 percent below market, and turnover costs taxpayers an average $85 million dollars a year. OPEA continues to market its legislative agenda, calling for a long-term compensation plan that will bring state salaries to market within four years.