Working Stiffs

Arizona's low salaries, high turnover plague the worst-paid state employees in the country

A legislative bill to increase state employee salaries by 1 percent didn't survive the Appropriations Committee during this session. The Legislature is about to adjourn, and underpaid state employees apparently won't get legislative attention again for another year.

For Loreen Swanson, this means another year of scraping by. She has worked for Child Protective Services for less than two years, yet is considered a veteran caseworker. Two years is the longest tenure of any of the current CPS workers in her unit. A combination of low pay and a heavy, stressful workload means frequent turnover at CPS. And it isn't the only agency struggling to keep workers.

The rate of turnover for state workers in 1999 was 17 percent, according to the Department of Administration. On average, that rate is not much higher than that of other states. However, some jobs turn over at a higher percentage rate. The DOA reports that youth correctional officers had a 33 percent turnover last year, and nursing assistants were at 32 percent. Based on the rate of turnover, during a given month, there are about 500 vacant state jobs.

ASEA's fashion statement.
Paolo Vescia
ASEA's fashion statement.

The Arizona State Employee Association (ASEA), an independent nonprofit organization, says low pay is a major cause of turnover. The group estimates that a business manager for the state makes about $48,000 a year. The same position in a private corporation pays from $6,000 to $24,000 a year more, according to ASEA.

The decline in state employee salaries began 10 years ago, when the state's economy was flagging. The Legislature eliminated automatic cost-of-living and merit increases for employees and stopped allocating money for raises. But when Arizona's economy roared back to life, state worker salaries didn't rise with the tide, and today, most state employees remain at the bottom of the salary range when compared to the private sector.

State employees got some legislative attention after the 1996 U.S. Department of Labor study ranked Arizona 50th in state employee salaries. The ASEA was organized that year to draw attention to the issue and advocate pay increases. Employee salaries became part of the legislative agenda, and small salary increases were approved between 1996 and 1999. However, according to the ASEA, in 1999, the Legislature appropriated about one-tenth of the money needed to bring the salaries of state employees within 5 percent of market value for each job classification.

As a result, says Senator Ed Cirillo, who chairs the Joint Legislative Study Committee on State Employee Compensation, salaries for state employees are at a standstill.

"We're just sort of treading water with the small increases we had last year," says Cirillo, a Sun City West Republican.

Many workers in job classifications that were eligible for salary increases under the Joint Legislative Committee plan have received no raise during fiscal 2000, which ends June 30. For instance, pay for the classification of employment resource specialist was not adjusted, and those workers continue to receive salaries that are considered half their market value.

ASEA member and Department of Economic Security employee Linda Strock manages people who didn't receive a pay raise but who work side-by-side with some who did. She says it's terrible for morale.

"I'm motivated to keep working on this because it just kills me that I have people working with me who didn't get anything," she says. "The way I view the world, that ain't right."

Turnover is costly. The state must recruit and retrain people constantly. For instance, CPS has a turnover rate of 23 percent. In less than two years, Swanson has seen 10 to 12 caseworkers in her unit come and go. More experienced workers must pick up the slack for the new people, which means they are constantly overloaded. Swanson, who has a master's degree in social work, says even the people who love working for CPS can't afford to stay long-term because compensation is so low. She says if the state wants to keep qualified people in CPS, compensation must improve.

"Some CPS employees would qualify for welfare based on their income and the amount of children they have," she says. "That's pretty ridiculous when those are the clients we're also working with."

Swanson says the real tragedy is the children and families who suffer from CPS turnover.

"I think we're not able to monitor our families as much as we'd like to," she says.

"These children have not had a lot of stability in their lives when they come into care, and we're trying to provide them with stability. When we have such a high turnover, they don't even have the time to get used to their case manager. They're having new people yanked in and out of their lives. Here we are saying we need stability for these children and we're not providing it, either."

Cirillo says he hopes the Legislature will bring state salaries into line.

"The Legislature committed themselves to doing it (in 1996) -- they haven't uncommitted themselves," he says. "I think the governor is supportive, so I'm always optimistic."

Cirillo's committee made the same recommendation this year as last year, because state employees did not receive adequate funding for salary increases in 1999. The ASEA continues to advocate pay increases and educate state employees about the issue. After four years of struggle, a new tee shirt depicting the complaints is all they have to show for their efforts.

Linda Strock wears hers to work.

"We get one of two reactions," she says. "Either people look at us like we have two heads ... or they say, 'where did you get that? I have to have one.'"

Contact Amanda Scioscia at her online address: amanda.scioscia@newtimes.com

 
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