As leaders claim economic boom times, some state workers decry 3 percent raise as ‘a half a tank of gas’

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Clarise Martin, 62, talks about her issues with living on a state employee wage while sitting at her dinning room table in her home in Natchez, Friday, January 11, 2019. Martin is currently an employee with the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

After several years of stagnant wages, roughly eight out of 10 state employees will receive a raise under legislation passed in the final days of the 2019 session.

But while the Mississippi State Personnel Board finds state employees are paid, on average, $4,810 below market rate, employees will receive annual raises of no more than 3 percent. The average raise is $1,050, or roughly $40 per paycheck before taxes.

“It’s an insult to me, after 30 years of service, to get that type of raise,” said Clarise Martin, a 62-year-old client service representative at the Mississippi Department of Human Services office in Adams County. “All you can come to the table and offer me is 3 percent? Be real.”

The average salary of Mississippi state employees lags the pay in surrounding states and the pay raise approved during the 2019 session will fall far short of eliminating that gap.

The amount of the wage hike varies from position to position. Every year, the state  Personnel Board recommends a salary “realignment” — typically an increase — for every state position by comparing the salary for similar jobs in the four contiguous states, combined with pay in the private sector in the state for similar jobs. The recommended increase aims to raise the salary to the position’s “relevant market rate.”

If it would take less than 3 percent to move a particular position up to the relevant market rate, then that is the amount of funds the employee would receive in the raise, explained Ryan Beard, director of Human Capital Core Processes with the Personnel Board.

In other words, under the legislation, every employee will receive the position realignment amount or a 3 percent increase, whichever is less.

For example, the seamstress, a position with the third-largest recommended realignment by percentage — $9,268.21 or a 61 percent increase — will receive a 3 percent or $453 raise.

Roughly 900 Corrections officers, whose current salary range is from $24,903 per year for trainees to $32,205 for sergeants, will also receive the full 3 percent raise.

This past September, Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall asked legislative leaders to provide a pay increase for Corrections officers.

“I shudder to think if I had to run a household” on the salary they make, she said at the time.

On the other end of the spectrum, entry level alcoholic beverage control enforcement agents received a $185 annual realignment, far less than 3 percent of their $37,000 salary, so they will receive the less than $200 a year bump.

The executive director of marine resources is eligible for $0.01 realignment, which would bump his salary from $102,010.69 to $102,010.70, according to the Personnel Board recommendations. However, all agency heads are exempt from receiving the pay raise under the legislation.

The state’s 2,582 mental health direct care trainees, workers, and supervisors, whose starting salaries are between $18,283 and $24,092, received realignments last year, so they will not see any increases.

Roughly 4,600 employees in total will not receive raises, including mental health psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, development authority program managers, wildlife, fisheries and parks coordinators, department of transportation senior district surveyors and enforcement officer trainees.

The average annual salary of Mississippi state employees before the pay raise passed in the 2019 session was $37,911 per year. The average salary of the four contiguous states is $49,779, based on Personnel Board information.

Fully funding the realignment, or essentially matching the average salaries in the four contiguous states for similar positions, would cost an additional $77.3 million in state funds based on the information compiled by the Personnel Board in December.

“We commend the Legislature for taking action to address the crisis in state employee turnover,” said Kelly Hardwick, executive director of the Mississippi State Personnel Board.  “Our state employees serve Mississippians each day in fields such as engineering, nursing, social work, and emergency response, and we appreciate the Legislature taking action to combat employee turnover and increase employee retention.”

Ed Williams, a direct care worker at Mississippi State Hospital, makes $11 an hour after a decade on the job — one that puts him in unpredictable, sometimes dangerous scenarios caring after the mentally ill.

“We get all kinds of stuff thrown at us,” Williams said. “Our lives are in danger as well.”

Williams said in 10 years he’s received two raises, including roughly $1,000 last year.

“That’s sad. They’ve been saying there’s no money in the budget,” Williams said. “Now that there’s money in the budget, they still won’t give us comfortable raises.”

Martin said she’s calculated her raise will add roughly $20 to her monthly income after taxes. “Technically when it goes to the gas pump, that’s not even going to get me a half a tank of gas, so I’m back to square one,” Martin said. “…I’m not trying to live like a king or queen, I’m just trying to live a basic daily life.”

Rank and file state workers aren’t the only ones receiving lower salaries than their peers. Lawmakers in Mississippi are also paid below the relevant market rate by $10,000, according to the Personnel Board’s 2020 realignment recommendation.

Editor’s note: This story is updated to reflect that although the executive director the Department of Marine Resources is eligible for a 1-cent pay raise, all agency heads are exempt from receiving a salary increase.