State employee pay raises spark confusion, resentment

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

? Some state of Kansas employees are seeing their first pay raise in several years, thanks to the budget that state lawmakers approved in June.

At the same time, however, many others are getting no raise at all, including some who have been on the job longer than those who are getting raises.

That’s the result of a complicated formula that Kansas lawmakers used to determine which employees would get raises this year and which ones would not, and it has sparked confusion and resentment among state employees, including many at the University of Kansas.

“I think there’s just frustration and concern. Why is the state, the longer-serving workers, why are we being held out from getting this increase?” asked Sara Vancil, who works in KU’s financial aid and scholarships office.

The issue of pay raises began when Gov. Sam Brownback submitted his budget proposal to the Legislature in January. It included a request from the Judicial Branch for $20.3 million to fund pay raises for court employees ranging from 4.6 percent to 22.2 percent, based on a salary study the courts had conducted looking at comparable jobs in other states.

The Senate, however, changed that proposal and instead used that same money to fund a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise for all state workers, which would have been the first across-the-board pay raise for state workers in nearly a decade.

Then, in conference negotiations with the House, the issue got complicated. House negotiators noted that not all employees have gone without raises. Specifically, highway patrol officers, Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents and teachers at the state schools for the blind and deaf were excluded because they are governed under different contracts.

In addition, since 2015, the state has offered incentives for employees who voluntarily transfer from classified to unclassified positions, thus giving up their civil service protections.

So, the final version of the bill carved out those employees who have gotten raises under separate contracts, then divided all the others into two categories. Those who have been on the job more than five years and have not had a raise since at least 2012 were to get a 5 percent raise, while those who have been on the job less than five years would get a 2.5 percent raise, regardless of whether they’ve had a raise in that time.

That left employees like Vancil out in the cold.

“I’ve worked here for 10 years,” she said. “First, we’re trying to figure out what the Legislature’s intention was. If the intention was to give folks a raise who hadn’t had one in a good period of time, that’s one thing. But it seems like they didn’t follow that idea through the entire bill.”

Vancil and many other longtime KU employees were left out of the pay raise pool because KU has, in fact, given out small merit raises in recent years. So any employee who has been at KU more than five years and received one of those raises gets nothing, while all newer employees will get a 2.5 percent raise, even if they also received one of those merit raises.

“I think there’s frustration and concern,” she said. “Why are we being held out from getting this increase? What was the Legislature’s intent? It’s kind of a slap in the face to longer-serving workers.”

KU was able to give out raises even in years when the state did not fund them because universities have access to other sources of revenue such as tuition and fees, federal grants and endowment funds.

But Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, a union that represents state workers, said state workers in other agencies outside the Regents system are expressing similar frustrations.

In the Department of Corrections, he said, “I have newer officers making more than veteran officers,” because newer officers are getting the 2.5 percent raise, but veteran officers who got smaller pay raises in the recent past are getting no raise.

KU officials did not respond to requests for detailed information about the number of employees who qualified for the raises. The Kansas Department of Administration also could not provide details on a statewide basis, saying it hasn’t had time to gather that information yet and that some employees are appealing their determinations.

Even some lawmakers who were involved in writing the legislation said they didn’t anticipate exactly how it would play out.

“The intent was to give pay raise to people who hadn’t had a raise in a long time,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

At a recent meeting of legislative leaders that was held after lawmakers adjourned, McGinn asked that the Department of Administration report to the Legislative Budget Committee during the interim detailing which employees get raises and which ones don’t.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, who serves on the Ways and Means Committee but was not part of the conference committee negotiations, said she is hopeful that lawmakers will revisit the issue of pay raises when they return for the 2018 legislative session.

“Clearly this is one of the problems about doing things in a conference committee that wasn’t part of a bill or an amendment,” she said. “It’s very important to have seen the language.”