‘We are in a mess.’ NC state agency leaders push for higher raises for state employees

·7 min read

North Carolina leaders continue to sound the alarm over the growing vacancy rate among state employees as lawmakers negotiate a final budget that could alleviate the problem.

Democrats are generally the party that pushes for the highest pay, but lately it has been some Republicans calling for better salaries to keep rank and file state employees, and teachers, on the job.

Four state agencies led by Republicans who were elected statewide are again advocating for better pay.

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The most emphatic of them Wednesday was Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson, a former House member who is not running for reelection to his current role.

“To be candid, there is no substitute for money,” Dobson told reporters at a news conference Wednesday in downtown Raleigh’s Legislative Building.

Dobson supports the State Employees Association of North Carolina’s push for a 10% pay raise for state employees over the next two years, as well as a bonus.

“My hope is is that the 7.5% (in the House budget) is a starting point,” he said. “And I would really like to see the 10% increase that has been advocated for here today. I want to do all I can to support our employees at the Department of Labor, support the governor and the General Assembly in any way I can to make sure we get the most we can possible for the employees at the Department of Labor and for all state employees, because it’s too important not to.”

North Carolina Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson, a Republican and former state House member, talks about the state employees vacancy rate and his support for 10% raises for state employees during a news conference May 24, 2023 at the Legislative Building in Raleigh.
North Carolina Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson, a Republican and former state House member, talks about the state employees vacancy rate and his support for 10% raises for state employees during a news conference May 24, 2023 at the Legislative Building in Raleigh.

Dobson joined state Rep. Donna McDowell White, a Johnston County Republican who is a retired state employee, as well at leadership from the Department of Insurance and Department of Agriculture to urge lawmakers to solve the crisis.

“We are in a mess,” White said.

She said while there’s a workforce shortage across the state, the state employees shortage impacts services for North Carolinians.

“It’s very, very concerning about what’s happening — or not happening — to address the issues of the state workers,” White said.

The House budget proposed 7.5% raises over two years for state employees, which is almost as much as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal of 8%. The Senate budget passed earlier this month would give state employees a 4.5% raise over two years.

None of those proposals are enough to solve the state government jobs crisis, according to Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

She said the shortage is “truly a crisis. If it doesn’t happen, if we don’t get a higher raise than what’s been proposed, the crisis will get worse.”

Mark Tyler, chief operating officer for the Department of Insurance, said vacancy rates at the department have fluctuated between 17% and 22%, and the agency is not getting the job applications they need. Tyler said it’s challenging to hire actuaries, engineers and CPAs. Those already working there are dealing with higher workloads, he said.

“As much as a pay raise as possible” is what (Insurance Commissioner Mike) Causey wants, Tyler said, so they can operate at a full staffing level.

Causey is also a Republican, as is Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, who has previously said the state doesn’t offer competitive salaries.

David Smith, the deputy agriculture commissioner, said that some positions do not get a single applicant. Smith has worked for the Department of Agriculture for 50 years and said he has “never seen it this bad.”

Turnover rate is also high

Salary is a primary reason for the vacancy rate, according to Smith, who said it’s now at 17% with a 19% turnover rate. He said the workload continues to grow, and the vacancy and turnover rates mean that “inspections are not happening, there are delays in sample testing, there are delays in meeting with farmers.”

State jobs have become a training ground for private sector, Smith said, with employees leaving for better paying jobs. Those that stay are forced to deal with an increased workload.

Smith offered solutions in addition to pay increases, such as better family health insurance, clear paths for advancement and rewards for excellent work. He also said recruitment and retention hurdles include an uneven work schedule for those who work in person or at home.

“Many of our employees cannot work remotely ... yet the pay is the same,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, talks about the need for raises amid high vacancy rates for state employees, at a press conference on May 24, 2023 at the Legislative Building in Raleigh.
Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, talks about the need for raises amid high vacancy rates for state employees, at a press conference on May 24, 2023 at the Legislative Building in Raleigh.

If the state keeps losing people, “terrible things” will continue to happen, Watkins said, with delayed inspections from elevators to bridges.

“We’ve got issues that are going to lead to tragedy,” she said.

Elevator inspectors needed at Labor

Dobson said that elevator inspectors — a job often tied to the Department of Labor’s image because the inspections are posted in every elevator — are one of the hardest jobs to fill in his agency. He told The News & Observer Wednesday that elevator inspections may be delayed because of job vacancies.

“They’re supposed to be inspected annually, but that’s not always the case because we have 32 individuals trying to do what 39 are supposed to be doing. We have those many vacancies,” he said.

“But then in addition to that, the strain that it puts on those that are trying to get into the facilities to inspect these elevators, it’s a strain on the ones that stick with us,” Dobson added.

Elevator inspections “is serious work that those men and women do every day for the safety of North Carolinians, because everybody rides an elevator,” he said.

Cooper’s push for education funding

Democrats often advocate for higher raises for state employees and teachers than Republicans have in the past. But with Republicans having a veto-proof supermajority in both the House and Senate, budget negotiations hinge on inter-chamber decisions within the one political party.

Since the Senate’s budget bill passed with seven Democrats’ support, the governor has focused most of his attention on public school funding, including teacher pay.

Cooper, who declared an actual state of emergency during the coronavirus pandemic, said Monday in a video recording that there is also a “state of emergency” in public education funding. He focused on taxypayer money Republicans want to give to private schools through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program is in the Senate budget and a House bill. Cooper has visited elementary schools in Raleigh and Charlotte this week to highlight the need for public education funding in the budget. His budget proposal this year called for 18% raises for teachers and 8% for state employees.

In a statement to reporters Wednesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a Republican, said that increasing pay would help reduce the vacancy rate and turnover for both state employees and teachers.

Truitt said the work of state employees at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction makes the agency “better equipped to raise the quality of education in North Carolina for all K-12 learners,” and that recruitment and retention efforts must be prioritized.

“I remain optimistic about the forthcoming conference budge and believe that increasing compensation for state employees, including teachers, would greatly help to reduce vacancy rates and first year turnover,” Truitt said. “A meaningful investment in the state’s workforce now — both for state employees and teachers — would produce tangible benefits for decades to come.”

Dobson is not seeking reelection, nor running for another office in 2024. He said he has no political agenda for pushing for state employee raises, but just wants to support state employees at his agency and others “who work hard every single day.”

“Now, I’ve been in the room (as a House member) when the budget decisions are being made,” Dobson said. “So I know what a tough job it is to have a lot of competing interests. I appreciate the work the House and the Senate have done so far, and I’m confident and hopeful that they will come together to do what they can for all hardworking state employees.”

The compromise budget, which will have the final say on raises, is expected by mid-June.

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