“State employees don’t want a pat on the back,” Push for pay raise as budget negotiations continue

OKLAHOMA CITY - As state lawmakers continue budget talks and negotiations, state employees are requesting pay raises be included in the fiscal budget.

"State employees don’t want a pat on the back. They don’t want proclamations. They don’t want pens. They don’t want parties. They want the pay raise," said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA).

They're asking Senate and House lawmakers to support a $2,500 pay raise for each state employee. With roughly 34,000 workers, Zearley said the ask would cost about $92 million.

Hank Swearingen has worked for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse for 23 years. When his wife was diagnosed with cancer seven years, he began working two jobs to make ends meet.

"There’s many days I slept four hours a night, five hours a night, worked 80-90 hours," Swearingen said. "We have state employees that are taking care of their parents, and we have state employees that are raising their grandchildren, so my story’s not that unique. Many of these people work two or three jobs."

According to the OPEA, state employees like Swearingen have received one pay raise in 11 years. Since 2008, they said there are 5,729 fewer state agency employees. This includes 2,000 fewer employees at the Department of Human Services and 550 fewer employees with the Department of Corrections.

"A $2,500 a year pay raise is basically a $1 dollar per hour raise. By the time taxes are removed from that, it is even less," said Department of Transporation worker Rita Heath. "We have employees who have to stay home and take leave, because there is not enough money to buy gas to get to work at the end of their pay period."

Letters requesting the raise were sent to House and Senate lawmakers in mid-April. A copy was also sent to Governor Kevin Stitt's office.

"There’s been a lot of talk to put additional money in the rainy day fund but, when you’re spending 137 million dollars on turnover cost, to me... the investment would be better [spent] into your employees," Zearley said. "In 2019, starting this year, we had 977 state employees whose salaries were lower than the federal poverty level of a family of four. These employees were making less than $25,750 annually."

We spoke with House majority floor leader Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City about the request.

"We believe our state employees do a great job in a difficult situation," Echols said. "The specifics, I would have to defer to Chairman Wallace. What I can tell you, I know in leadership, we have always had a state employee employee pay raise in the House budget."

The office of budget chairman Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston could only tell us negotiations were still ongoing.

As for Governor Stitt, he said the issue of pay raises were being discussed.

"I don’t know if it will be $2,500 because I was elected to do things differently and make sure I bring fiscal discipline to Oklahoma," Stitt said.

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