Opinion Extra

You heard about the teacher crisis? That’s not our only employee shortage

SC state employees are fleeing government jobs because of low pay and benefits.
SC state employees are fleeing government jobs because of low pay and benefits.

State employees are angry and rapidly leaving behind their careers in state government.

Here’s why.

In 2015, the General Assembly spent almost $300,000 for a state employee classification and compensation pay study. The findings were worse than expected, and the Legislature has failed to act in a timely manner on any of the study’s recommendations. In fact, the study committee, made up of House and Senate leaders, has not even met once to discuss the recommendations. This is irresponsible.

The study concluded that state employees in South Carolina are drastically underpaid. Pay remains among the worst in the Southeast and nationally. When coupled with other benefits, the salaries of S.C. state employees still are not even close to being competitive.

Operating off a classification and compensation pay plan developed in 1995, when the minimum wage was $4.25 an hour, leaves state employees feeling undervalued. Morale is at an all-time low, and South Carolina is not getting the best from employees. Long response times, management problems, understaffing and lack of funding present additional stressors to an already-challenging situation.

Carlton Washington

As a result, state agencies are scrambling to combat rapid turnover, reduce costs and retain experienced workers. While their efforts are certainly noble, it is the responsibility of the General Assembly to enact the study’s recommendations to address the state’s personnel crisis.

In some cases, retention efforts by individual agencies have actually fueled the discord among new and tenured employees. For example, the Department of Social Services recently rolled out an employee bonus/incentive pay program designed to curb the agency’s turnover rate.

In a recent memo to DSS employees, Director Susan Alford, advised: “The agency suffers, and vulnerable children and adults suffer, when we lose employees so quickly when they enter the DSS workforce. We lose the training dollars we have spent on getting staff certified; our children/adults experience the loss of a worker with whom they have initially bonded; our supervisors have to re-coach and re-train staff; and our other workers have to assume the work of exiting employees until their positions can be re-hired.”

The incentive program presented by Director Alford is clearly well-intended. But it does not provide a long-term solution and is only offered to employees in pay bands 2-6. Additionally, the bonus isn’t added to the employee’s base salary. Moreover, the bonus targets first- and third-year anniversary employees, leaving a host of employees feeling left out and unappreciated.

In October alone, more than 1,200 state employees left for better pay and working conditions.

State employees agree that agency directors like Ms. Alford are doing what they can, with little support from the Legislature, to make the best out of a bad situation. However, the situation is projected to get a whole lot worse. In just less than two years, the average tenure of all employees declined from 15 years of service to nine. That means the number of experienced state employees is steadily declining, leaving an extremely inexperienced workforce to deliver the state’s critical services. To make matters worse, an additional 12,535 state employees will be eligible for retirement within the next five years.

The numbers are staggering. Recruitment and retention problems are suffocating state agencies’ ability to perform critical and in some cases life-saving services. State employees are exiting state service in large numbers. According to the S.C. Department of Administration, in October alone, more than 1,200 state employees left for better pay and working conditions.

At what point do legislators correlate fair pay to the delivery of critical services?

Cherry-picking who gets raises or bonuses makes employees angry, and it affects the service the public receives.

State employees are held to a high creed of excellence. Shouldn’t our legislators be held to an equally demanding expectation to ensure public services are appropriately funded?

The study has been concluded. It’s time for the Legislature to make employees a priority and implement the recommendations.

Mr. Washington is executive director of the S.C. State Employees Association; contact him at cwashington@scsea.com.