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State pay raises would invest in talented work force

The Idaho Statesman
Employee turnover costs money. It hurts productivity. That´s true in the business world and the public sector.

It´s another reason why the Legislature should act now to find more money for employee pay.

Legislators are fond of talking about running state government like a business. But the state can´t become a training ground, where employees get experience before jumping to better paying jobs. This would make for a crummy business model.

Turnover numbers are mixed, after two years of pay freezes for most state workers:

• For state-employed nurses, a group of about 500 people, the turnover rate is a troubling 28 percent. Despite a nationwide nurses´ shortage, some hospitals are managing to operate with a much lower turnover rate, said Deanna O´Toole, director of human resources and public relations for the Idaho Hospital Association.

• The overall state employee turnover numbers are less conclusive. The number has reached 13 percent, up slightly from a historical rate of 11 to 12 percent, the Idaho Division of Human Resources said in a recent report.

But here the report raises a fair point. That 13 percent turnover occurred during a down economy, when workers usually are apt to stay put. Rightfully, the human resources division is worried about what may follow. “The state could see a spike in turnover when the economy turns and the labor markets loosen, especially if wages are drastically behind market.”

Wages are falling behind. Overall pay is 14.6 percent below market rates; a year ago, the gap was about 11 percent. In nursing — “one of the hottest occupations in the nation for the foreseeable future,” according to the division´s report — the pay gap is a whopping 22.3 percent and growing. The state isn´t going to cut into its turnover rate if it continues to pay registered nurses $7.50 an hour less than they can get elsewhere.

But there also is no way the state can afford the $85 million it would take to erase all the salary gaps.

One of the human resources division´s recommendations is using $10 million of one-time money to add 2 percent to the pay pool.

There are pros and cons to this. The disadvantage for workers is that the new money doesn´t get built into their pay base. This may be the year where the Legislature has to draw the line, as it did with education a year ago, and commit to give workers raises, not just bonuses.

The state´s employees are not nameless, faceless bureaucrats. They´re neighbors who have to pay for mortgages, health insurance and their kids´ college education. The vast majority of them have been trying to pull this off with flat pay.

This winter, the Legislature needs to find money in a tight budget for raises. Lawmakers need to make a wise investment in keeping a talented, experienced work force.