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Kemp budget won’t fund full raises to all low-wage state workers

Gov. Brian Kemp
Gov. Brian Kemp

More than 47,000 state employees make less than $40,000 a year and would qualify for a raise Gov. Brian Kemp has promoted to boost the wages of the government’s lowest-paid staffers.

But it’s unclear how many of those employees would receive the $1,000 raise Kemp promised in his budget proposal.

Budget-writers and at least one agency head say the governor’s budget doesn’t supply enough money to fund a $1,000 raise for all state employees who earn less than $40,000. Data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution backs up that assertion.

That’s because the state would only provide money for the portion of the payroll currently funded with state money, and some of the employees are at least partially funded with federal tax money or through other sources. The state budget includes about $14 billion a year in federal funding that goes to, among other things, research, k-12 school programs and mental health care.

Kemp’s office said budget staffers applied the same methodology that previous governors used for decades to calculate raises for state employees.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said it's something his committee is aware of as it reworks Kemp's budget proposal.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black recently told a House budget subcommittee that he wouldn’t be able to give all his eligible employees the full $1,000 raise. About three-fifths of his employees qualify because they earn less than $40,000 a year.

Most of his budget comes from state funds, but not all of it.

“The number that is in the budget (proposal) doesn’t match totally what the cost is,” Black said.

So he would offer lower-paid staffers $970 raises.

“I know that’s close. If we tell them they are getting a $1,000 raise, they should get a $1,000 raise,” he said. “I am not telling an employee he is getting a $1,000 raise and it turns up $970.”

During budget hearings last week, Kemp told lawmakers: “State employees deserve recognition for their hard work and dedication.

“Their commitment to public service improves the lives of their fellow Georgians each and every day, and we must take care of those who take care of us.”

Kemp’s budget proposal calls for about $45 million to go toward the pay raises and benefits for the lower-paid employees.

Governors and lawmakers have long made efforts to raise salaries for relatively low-paid positions, putting extra money in the budget in recent years for child welfare workers, prison guards and state troopers. The aim has been to slow rapid and costly employee turnover for those vital positions.

Black, for instance, told the subcommittee he has trouble filling food inspection jobs because the beginning pay is $31,000. Kemp’s budget proposal cuts some of the vacant food safety positions, a move that worries lawmakers.

“For some of these (jobs) we were simply not able to find a qualified person to go to work for what we were willing to pay them,” Black said.

According to data from the Office of Planning and Budget, the University System of Georgia has the most employees earning less than $40,000 — about 12,000. Many of them are not fully funded with state money, and OPB data shows the University System wouldn’t get nearly enough to fund $1,000 raises for all the employees making less than $40,000 a year. The University System declined to comment.

The Department of Human Services — including the state’s child welfare agency — has almost 7,000 workers who would qualify under Kemp’s proposal, and the Department of Corrections, which runs the prison system, has about 6,800, according to OPB. The prison system is almost entirely state-funded, so the lower-paid employees would likely receive the raise.

Cliff O’Connor, the chief financial officer for the Division of Family and Children Services, said of his agency: “My understanding is that almost all will get the $1,000. The intent is to make it as across-the-board as possible for those at $40,000 or less.”

According to OPB figures, the division would receive about $3.34 million for extra salary and benefits for 4,644 eligible DFCS workers.

Brittney Jenkins, a foster care caseworker in Carroll County, said a pay raise will not only help her and her colleagues financially, but also build morale.

“You really have to love this job or love the kids to be able to handle things sometimes because the pay is just not realistic of what you’re doing and the hours you’re spending to do things,” said the 30-year-old Carrollton resident, a single mother who earns just under $39,000 a year.

Jenkins, who graduated from the University of West Georgia with a psychology degree, said she’s considered seeking additional part-time work, but between her work hours and caring for her son, there isn’t time.

“It’s really hard to get a second job because you’re so tired after making sure all your kids on your caseload and everybody else is safe,” she said, adding that she manages the cases of 29 children ranging from infants to 17. “I’ve got a son I have to take care of as well. My second job is him.”

It’s not unusual for not everyone to benefit fully from promised pay raises.

For years, governors and lawmakers touted teacher pay raises, but local school boards had the final decision. Sometimes boards passed along the full pay raises promised by state officials, sometimes not. In the years after the Great Recession, some school districts used money meant for raises to eliminate staff furloughs or to plug holes in their budgets.

School districts have complained in the past that the state doesn’t always fully fund the teacher raises it promises, leaving them to come up with local money.

Last year Kemp proposed a $3,000 teacher pay raise. But the House balked when it said Kemp's budget supplied money for teachers but not enough for other school employees certified by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, such as psychologists, counselors, media specialists, social workers and speech pathologists.

In the end, the House and Senate found enough savings elsewhere in the budget to give everyone the raise.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she's seen the same thing for years.

“It’s an unfortunate pattern of promising pay increases and benefits that then become mandates on somebody else to pay, or they don’t become real,” Orrock said. “The state pushes teacher pay increases, and many, many, many school districts are paying out of their own budgets what was promised in the flowery political speeches when the TV cameras are running.

“It’s past time to address a low-paid state workforce, but this is not the way to do … a hollow promise that comes from somebody else’s budget somewhere or doesn’t happen at all.”

Lowest-paid state workers

Below are the number of full-time state employees making less than $40,000 at some key agencies:

University System of Georgia

12,700

Department of Human Services

6,900

Department of Corrections

6,800

Department of Behavioral Health (mental health)

2,650

Department of Juvenile Justice

2,260

Technical College System

1,850

Department of Transportation

1,830

Source: Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget