BY CARLTON B. WASHINGTON
“It’s a great day in South Carolina.”
That’s the sentiment, still faithfully echoed by state workers across South Carolina.
This is the case, despite what many describe as an apparent disregard, insensitivity, even lack of cursory consideration for state employees.
The failure by some legislators to even remotely address long-term and significant deficits in pay was a major disappointment for South Carolina’s state employees. But even that has not deterred state employees who remain on the front line and deliver their very best.
The proposed 1 percent pay adjustment was supported overwhelmingly by the majority of Budget Committee conferees by a vote of 4-2.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, Sen. Harvey Peeler, Sen. Nikki Setzler and Rep. Michael Anthony voted in favor of the compromise proposal.
Rep. Brian White and Rep. Gary Simrill were the only conferees to vote against the measure.
When you consider the overwhelming impact of consecutive and multiple years of inflation with no corresponding pay adjustments, the deficit in state employee pay is substantial. The deficit is even more significant when you factor in higher employee pension contributions (1.5 percent, the 2 percent federal payroll tax increase, escalating employee deductibles and co-pay increases — 20 percent this year alone).
The truth of the matter is, with or without the 1 percent pay adjustment, state employees would not realize any increase in take home pay.
The proposed 1 percent pay adjustment was important because of the awareness it demonstrates for the significant economic sacrifice state employees and retirees have made over the past decade. The measure would have served as a sign of good faith, a baseline more or less, to begin the real task of strengthening our state’s human resources.
In an interview with The State newspaper, Rep. White was quoted as saying, “State employees have had time to prepare for having to pay more into the retirement system. It’s not like something that was sprung on them.”
As far as changes to the state’s retirement system, our members are for the most part in agreement with Rep. White. The retirement reforms enacted are, indeed, reflective of a collaborative effort among all stakeholders. including state employees.
However, there is a clear perception among our members, who find Rep. White’s comments offensive. After all, how can employees be expected to prepare when they have only had one pay adjustment since 2007 and no merit or longevity pay adjustments?
State employees are clearly disappointed in the failure of both Gov. Haley and the S.C. House of Representatives to include even a nominal pay adjustment for state employees in order to carry forward the premise of shared sacrifice.
Sixty-two percent of state employees earn between $15,000 and $35,000. The qualifying food assistance income limit for a three-person household is $24,828.
Certainly, the goal should not be to subsidize state employee pay through welfare programs. As it stands, South Carolina’s state employees’ pay is among the worst nationally, at the bottom of the barrel, the fourth lowest in the nation.
On the flip side, state employees continue to meet the challenge of doing more with less. For instance, social workers at the S.C. Department of Social Services manage the highest caseloads in the nation. The national average is 280 cases per employee. South Carolina’s social workers handle an average of 1,001 child support cases.
Recruitment processes, hiring and training new employees require a substantial investment of time and money, nearly the equivalent of the position’s annual salary. Just over the last two fiscal years, Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, a state agency under the office of the governor, hired 92 workers but lost 86 people.
However, the news is not all bad. South Carolina is at a critical but promising crossroads.
According to the latest report by the U.S. Commerce Department, South Carolina is tied with North Carolina as the fastest growing state on the East Coast. The new report places South Carolina in first place among East Coast states when it comes to manufacturing and ranks South Carolina’s economy as the 12th fastest growing in the nation.
The state’s new slogan, “Just Right,” is synonymous with everything South Carolina. The weather, the beaches, the mountains, the people, businesses, everything South Carolina is “just right.”
Making the case for treating South Carolina’s state employees fairly is “just right” and starts with establishing competitive salaries commensurate with duties and responsibilities.
Carlton B. Washington is the executive director of the South Carolina State Employees Association.