Employee pay lags further behind;
report calls for 3% raises for Idaho state workers

From Eye on Boise, author Betsy Russell

A year ago, Idaho state employee pay was lagging 19 percent behind market rates. Now the new report is in, and the gap has risen to 19.8 percent.

The new state survey of employee compensation reaches this conclusion: Funds permitting, lawmakers should fund merit-based raises averaging 3 percent for state employees next year. If approved, that would be the biggest raise targeted toward state employees since 2008.

A joint legislative panel will convene on Thursday to begin examining Idaho’s state employee compensation, turnover, morale and more. Gov. Butch Otter will unveil his proposal for state worker pay a week from Monday in his State of the State and budget message, and the lawmakers’ panel will vote on raises the following Friday.

Idaho state employees went without raises for years during the state’s economic downturn. Lawmakers funded 1 percent in merit-based raises this year, with another 1 percent in one-time bonuses, though Otter had recommended zero funding for raises. In the five years preceding this year, lawmakers approved only one 2 percent raise for state workers – they also got a 5 percent cut. The joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee actually stopped meeting after 2008, reconvening last January for the first time in six years.

Some lawmakers are hopeful that the state finally will do something to address the issue this year.

“We find them, train them and lose them to the private sector,” mused House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, in an online post. “And since we also lose their skills and capacity, we then turn around and contract with the private sector for needed services at 150 to 200 percent what it would have cost to retain the employees – penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Despite a state law that requires legislators to keep state worker pay and benefits competitive, Idaho’s state worker pay levels have fallen far behind market rates. As of last January, some 20 percent of the state’s 25,000 employees made less than $20,000 a year, and 56 percent made less than $40,000. The average salary is now $41,308.

The latest official Report to the Governor on state employee compensation and benefits says, “Although Idaho has not kept pace with salary increases … it is understandable due to the economic and funding challenges in the past which have restricted the state from providing salary increases. However, even during challenging times, salary increases are important in order to reward performance and retain talent.”

Idaho’s state employee pay ranks last among seven comparison states: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Published 01-09-15