Even when the budget is tight, state officials in Kansas recognized a real need.
On Tuesday, a committee overseeing state employee pay recommended about $11.4 million in raises for underpaid state workers. The recommendation from the Joint Committee on Employee Pay Plan Oversight will result in raises ranging from 5 percent to 12.5 percent for a total of 4,296 state employees. The goal of the increases is to get pay levels for those employees closer to wages in the private sector. Funding for the raises was approved by the Kansas Legislature earlier this year, and the pay increases must get final approval from the State Finance Council.
Key among the workers who will benefit are corrections officers who work in Kansas prisons. More than a thousand corrections officers will receive raises of about 7.5 percent under the plan. A 7.5 percent raise is more than most employees in either the public or private sector can expect this year, but the raises were desperately needed to try to lower the turnover rate and raise the level of professionalism among the state’s corrections workforce. The officers haven’t received a pay raise since 2009, according to Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts, and a survey of seven states indicated that only Oklahoma paid its corrections officers less than Kansas.
In addition to officers at the state’s correctional facilities, the pay increases also will benefit 161 employees at the Kansas Juvenile Corrections Complex in Topeka, which is operated by the state’s Juvenile Justice Authority. The need for that funding was dramatically illustrated by a state audit report released in July that found the Topeka facility had a turnover rate of 32 percent over the last five years. That circumstance was seen as a key contributing factor to serious security and safety issues at the complex. State officials hope that pay increases will make the jobs more attractive and, therefore, make it easier to hire and maintain qualified staff members. Another expected benefit is a reduction of overtime hours, which would save money and put less stress on staff.
There are a couple of important reasons for the state to try to get its salaries closer to those in the private sector. As the state has trimmed its workforce in recent years, employees are being asked to do more, often at the same pay. Changes to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System also may make the state’s retirement plan less attractive for some new hires. Some state employees say they have been willing to work for salaries less than they could make in the private sector because of promised KPERS benefits, but that may no longer be the case.
Even if the state’s goal is a smaller government, it needs to be able to hire good people to perform important state jobs. The pay raises recommended on Tuesday are a step in that direction.