North Carolina state employees received a 4% pay increase this year and will get a 3% pay increase in 2024, under the new state budget passed last week. But the increase does not keep up with the cost of inflation and the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) had sought higher pay increases.
As of last month, the organization had hoped for a 10% raise over two years, in addition to a 2% bonus.
‘People Are Going to Go to the Private Sector’
During his remarks in last Thursday’s budget debate, Democratic State Rep. Wesley Harris of Mecklenburg County said the state’s public sector is in dire straits.
“Our public sector is in a hiring crisis. One out of every four state employee jobs remain unfilled,” he said.
His colleague, State Rep. Eric Ager (D- Buncombe County) concurred.
“Four percent and 3% is just not enough. We had 8% inflation in 2022, and 4.7% in 2021, and state employees were already behind,” Ager said. “We’re seeing in the market that labor is getting more expensive. In order to retain the best employees you just have to pay more. Otherwise people are going to go to the private sector.”
Ager notes that it isn’t just Democrats sounding the alarm about the shortage of public sector employees. He said the Republican Commissioner of Agriculture, Steve Troxler, voiced his concerns to the legislature as the budget was being crafted.
“Commissioner Troxler was just begging for real increases that would help him fill the roles in that department,” Ager said.
Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Kody Kinsley said that his department currently faces serious shortages, with about a quarter of agency jobs being vacant. In some divisions, the rate of vacancies is even higher.
“In our Division of Health Service Regulation—these are the people that inspect nursing homes and adult care homes to make sure that our oldest North Carolinians are safe—they have over a 30% vacancy rate,” Kinsley said.
Exacerbating the staffing shortage is the fact that a significant percentage of DHHS employees are eligible for retirement in the coming years. In addition to the need to fill those positions, Kinlsey said years of experience cannot easily be replicated.
“You lose a significant amount of institutional knowledge.”
Kinsley believes that one way to alleviate this is by implementing a phased retirement plan similar to the federal government.
“I think that’s another opportunity that our state should look at. Folks can retire into essentially a part-time status, they can draw a pension while also drawing a partial paycheck,” he said. “It allows them to move into that retirement phase while still continuing that information and knowledge transfer.”
While highlighting the challenges DHHS faces, Kinsley acknowledged the state budget provided significant investments in the department.
“We did get additional positions for some of our key, most critical areas, like our Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and for the Department of Health Service Regulation. They did also give us several million dollars to invest in some retention bonuses and retaining bonuses for our state operated healthcare facilities.”
State Workers in Urban Areas Get the Short End of the Stick
Another concern that state employees have raised is cost of living discrepancies from county to county and the failure to consider that in setting salaries.
For example, regardless of whether a Deputy Clerk of Court starts out in Raleigh or Lenoir, they will have a starting salary of $33,419.00. There is no consideration given to the much higher cost of living in Raleigh.
Stacy Preddy, who worked in the Wake County Clerk of Court’s Office for almost four years, said that her salary could not keep up with the cost of living in the capital, so she had to seek out employment in the private sector.
“One of the main reasons I left was because of the pay,” Preddy said. “I didn’t want to leave the state, I didn’t. I enjoyed the work I did. I enjoyed helping the people, I was fulfilled helping people. But I couldn’t live.”
Preddy said that some of her former colleagues left for better-paying jobs working for Wake County.
“There are several people I know for a fact left and went to the county, because the county paid better.”
State Rep. Ager says there are also issues with discrepancies in pay between state employees and county-level workers in Buncombe County.
“The Soil and Water office gets paid by the county. They work right next to the agriculture extension folks in the same building here in Buncombe County, and Buncombe County can continue to pay more and more,” Ager said. “Their ‘coworkers,’ basically, are seeing a bigger increase in pay than they are, and that creates a lot of frustration.”
Ager believes if some of these jobs aren’t filled soon, citizens can expect longer delays for crucial services, especially at the Department of Motor Vehicles.