Kelly Farr, the governor’s budget director, said Kemp — who once ran the secretary of state’s office — and his staff understood that difference. And why the state needed to make a change.
“There was a lot of discussion that people working at McDonald’s could make more than a (Georgia) prison guard,” Farr said.
He said the last time the state gave a 3% raise it amounted to about $600 more a year for some workers. “By the time you take out taxes they are just not going to see a difference in their checking account. We thought about what we could do for the low-wage employees, the people we are having trouble getting into the state (government) and keeping.”
In what has become an annual lament, one agency head after another streamed through House and Senate budget meetings during the second week of the 2023 General Assembly session, telling lawmakers they couldn’t hold onto employees.
The agencies help educate students, provide health care coverage and child welfare checks, treat mental illness and substance abuse, patrol highways, investigate crimes, imprison offenders and operate courts. They need workers to fulfill their missions.
Several factors have been at play.
The state stopped allowing new employees to join the traditional pension system during the Great Recession in the late 2000s. The argument had long been that state workers traded lower-than-market pay for the promise of a good pension.
Department heads say the plan for newer workers — which includes a 401(k) — is portable, so staffers can take the money with them to other jobs. They don’t have to stick around to accumulate years of service for a traditional pension.
The Great Recession impacted state finances for many years, so pay for those who performed difficult frontline work — such as juvenile justice guards, social workers and the Georgia State Patrol — often lagged.
Lawmakers recognized the issue in law enforcement and eventually granted percentage raises to boost salaries, as they did in some other areas.
The turnover rate wasn’t helped by the COVID-19 economy, with inflation and low unemployment rates driving up wages and creating more and better opportunities for workers. The most common refrain from state department heads during the budget hearing was that keeping workers is tough when they can easily earn far more with other governments or in private industry.
“It is absolutely cruciial we find ways to make these jobs more attractive, and making them more financially attractive is one of the important ways to refill the depleted ranks of state employees,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It is a glaring, top-line issue to hire and retain talent to work for the public as state employees.”
Tyrone Oliver, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said the turnover rate for prison guards last year was 47%. That’s an improvement over past years, when the department was losing almost as many officers as it was hiring.
“The pay raise helped a lot,” Oliver said of last year’s $5,000 increase. “We are not losing nearly as many (correctional officers) as we were before the pay raise.”
The raise brought the starting salary up to about $52,000 for state patrolmen, but Col. Chris C. Wright, head of the Department of Public Safety, said that hasn’t increased his pool of applicants.
“Our goal is to be the safest state for our citizens, but unfortunately recruiting and retaining employees is making this a challenging feat,” he told lawmakers. “This is a difficult and dangerous job, and it becomes more dangerous as manpower diminishes.”
He said state patrol pay in Georgia ranks 37th in the country.
“Young people are not interested in it,” he said. “They are not interested in it because they can telework from home and make six-figure salaries, they can drive a commercial vehicle from point A to point B, Monday through Friday and make six-figure salaries.”
Attorney General Chris Carr asked legislators for more merit-pay money after describing losing a senior human trafficking prosecutor who got a $45,000 pay bump by joining the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office.
Credit: David Barnes/AJC
Credit: David Barnes/AJC
“Our starting attorney salary is $65,000 (a year) while many private-sector firms are paying over $200,000 base, plus bonuses,” he said. “We are regularly losing attorneys to other state government positions, in addition to federal and local governments and the private sector because our salaries have not kept pace and are not competitive.”
That, he said, means spending millions of dollars more to hire private-firm lawyers to represent the state in court.
Danny Kanso, director of legislative strategy and senior fiscal analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute — an Atlanta think tank — said the number of state agency employees has dropped from 83,000 to less than 60,000 since the start of the Great Recession. The median pay, if Kemp’s $2,000 raise proposal goes through, would be about $47,000, he said.
“It makes sense that some drastic intervention was needed,” Kanso added.
Lt. Brenda Monroe, a corrections officer at the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Augusta Youth Development Campus, said last year’s raise made a big difference.
“It meant a lot to me,” said Monroe, 56. “I recently became the sole provider for my household. Before the raise, I had issues of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Do I buy groceries or pay this bill?
“The raise has gotten me out of that line of thinking.”
Monroe, an almost nine-year employee with the department, said she now makes more than $50,000 a year. She started out at $24,000.
“I feel like we are finally being recognized for the work we do,” she said. “I have heard people say they can now buy a higher quality of food.
“When you have to decide, do I pay this bill or buy food ... that’s a heavy decision.”