By Bill Crawford
State employees can’t get a break. Well, most can’t.
In 2012, Mississippi had 58,135 state employees earning an average salary of $41,870, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A Pew Charitable Trusts study reported this was significantly higher than the $35,263 average private sector salary in Mississippi. Couple this with the state’s generous retirement plan – few, if any, private sector retirement plans are anywhere near as generous – and you get a glimpse of why many think state employees don’t deserve a break.
But, wait a minute.
There are 31,514 state employees covered by the Mississippi State Personnel Board. The rest counted in the BLS figures are university professors and employees; the Governor, Lt. Governor, legislators and their staffs; judges; and members of the National Guard – all not covered by the Board.
The median salary for Board covered employees was just $30,046, noticeably below the private sector average.
And, according to the Associated Press, 49 percent of them earned less than $29,000 and 14 percent less than $19,999.
Rep. Johnny Stringer of Montrose says these employees have not received a pay increase in seven years. But, during that time their required contributions to the struggling state retirement system have increased 24% and the amount many pay toward their health insurance benefit has more than doubled.
No wonder so many quit.
Last year the Board reported 3,649 state employees quit. Over the past five years, 15,390 employees quit. Of these 62 percent were under the age of 40 and 67 percent were employed less than five years, indicating a retention problem.
Deanne Mosley, executive director of the Board, worries that the underpinnings of the state workforce are eroding. She told legislative leaders that in addition to resignations, one-third of her workforce can retire in the next five years and among them are many key supervisors and leaders. “They have an incredible amount of institutional knowledge,” she said. She suggested a pay increase could keep them working longer.
Last year, due to resignations and retirements, the Board’s covered workforce hit a 10-year low; down 1,298 from the prior year.
“It has been disheartening to see so many good, sharp, long-tenured employees leave to retire or take other jobs,” one long-time agency administrator told me. “Hiring people qualified for their tasks who will take jobs for such low pay has almost been impossible to tackle.”
Stringer has been trying unsuccessfully to tack pay increases on to appropriations bills. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson of Poplarville said the $39 million Stringer’s proposals would cost in ongoing appropriations is not available. “We wanted to do it. And we ran out of money,” he said.
Maybe Board covered state employees should ask for tax breaks instead. Those appear to be available for the asking.
Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.