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S.C. salaries should be based on responsibilities

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Carlton B. Washington

In South Carolina, the number of state employees is established in relation to the state’s population. In 1994, the state’s population was about 3.7 million and the state appropriated funding for about 42,000 full-time employment (FTE) positions, nearly 95 percent of the annual limitation.
In 2012, the state’s population was more than 4.7 million and the state appropriated funding for approximately 32,000 FTE positions, a reduction of almost 50 percent of the annual limitation. Clearly, the first goal of government restructuring, streamlining or reducing the number of state employees has been accomplished.
Unfortunately, the second restructuring goal, appropriately compensating employees for meeting the challenge of doing more with less, has not been accomplished. Conservative estimates place state employees at least 20 percent or more behind inflation-adjusted earnings.
According to the U.S. Census, average monthly earnings for state employees in South Carolina is more than $1,000 below the national average. The demand on employees to do more with less, absent the second tier of reform, significantly alters the state’s ability to support more than a million new consumers.
According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Accountability Report (FY 2011-2012), “Increased environmental pressures, demands for health and environmental services, along with staff shortages for emergency response, challenge the agency’s ability to accomplish its mission to promote and protect the health of the public and the environment.”
The report further advises, “DHEC’s ability to ensure that facilities and services meet minimum standards is compromised by having fewer and less experienced staff.”
According to the report, competitive pay is one of the main barriers to employee recruitment and retention.
“It is not unusual to lose employees to the private sector with salary offers of 30 to 40 percent more than they currently earn,” the report said.
Similarly, the annual accountability report from the S.C. Department of Social Services advises, “Caseloads in the CSED (Child Support Enforcement Division) remain the highest in the nation with 927 cases per FTE. The national average is 280 cases per FTE, according to the FFY 2010 Preliminary Report, issued by the Federal Office of Child Support.”
The SCDSS report also cites competitive pay as one of the major barriers to employee recruitment and retention.
“Although several measures have been implemented to recruit employees, a major barrier to recruitment is the lack of competitive compensation. The salaries of the majority of positions in DSS lag behind most agencies and the private sector. A major barrier to retention is the high stress level, high caseloads and lack of competitive compensation,” it said.
The annual accountability report from the S.C. Department of Corrections presents similar concerns. In 2011, the SCDC hired 855 new security officers. Within one year, the department lost about 50 percent of those new hires.
According to the report, “Current difficulties are those relative to budget constraints in that salaries being offered are not competitive with comparable salaries offered by other state and local agencies in South Carolina.”
The report further advises, “SCDC identifies the continued loss of accumulated employee knowledge as a barrier to effectiveness.”
Recent salary increases for employees in the office of the governor highlight the value of competitive pay to government restructuring. The increases were notable. In one case, the increase was almost 17 percent.
Since taking office, Gov. Nikki Haley has never once officially proposed a pay increase for all state employees. In an interview with the Post and Courier, Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, offered that “the raises and shifts in responsibilities within the office, which have taken place as each former employee departed, were part of an effort to make sure the office runs as effectively and efficiently as possible.”
A longevity program is fundamental to retain highly trained workers and simultaneously reward long-term service. State employees have and continue to develop special skill sets that are desirable in both the public and private sectors. The absence of a longevity program significantly reduces the state’s ability to retain those highly qualified employees and at the same time increases program costs. For instance, each time a prevention specialist employed by the state of South Carolina leaves for other employment, the cost to the state is more than $20,000 on average.
Establishing salaries commensurate with responsibilities is fundamental to South Carolina’s ability to meet the ever-growing demand for public services. The state cannot afford to cherry-pick between agencies, doing right by one, but ignoring the common interest of all. Compensating employees in relation to expanded duties should not be reserved exclusively for employees in the office of the governor. State employees at all levels deserve the same consideration.
After failing for more than two decades, establishing salaries commensurate with responsibilities should be a priority. This goal is integral to the success of government restructuring. The goal is sensible and straightforward.

Carlton B. Washington is director of the S.C. State Employees Association.