WYDOT crews work to clear the I-80 summit of snow early on March 15, 2021. (WYDOT)

Gov. Mark Gordon has been scratching his head about how to stem the departure of state workers, and thinks a round of pay raises will do the trick. 

Low pay for state workers is a huge problem, but I wouldn’t gamble that a quick promise today of more money will help much. 

Opinion

Don’t get me wrong; Wyoming state employee pay is nowhere near where it needs to be: 39% of state employees need a second job, and 3% of our state employees rely on federal assistance to feed their families. That’s more than 200 workers! 

It’s no wonder that two-out-of-three state workers are looking for another job! If just half of them leave, the administration of our state government will get even worse. 

Wyoming needs something more. 

I spoke to a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer some months ago who was attracted to work in the state with a promised slate of pay and benefits, but the compensation he actually received did not match up. Another issue at the highway patrol is the sad state of the equipment, including many of the cruisers. One officer told me that so-called “bad guys” aren’t a worry on the roads. Instead, the most frightening things are the bald tires and mechanical failures of the vehicles they drive. 

Some years ago, when I worked in state government, my colleagues and I endured the tirades, whims and threats of our agency heads. My coworkers were some of the most competent, dedicated and professional people I have ever met, yet it often seemed to us like we had to work long, uncompensated hours and travel for days away from our families. Why? Because if we asked too many questions, we felt we could be targeted for retaliation. We knew we could be harassed, reassigned or even fired. There were few protections then, and that culture exists still today. 

Our Legislature should address the larger problem, which involves a lack of basic dignity on the job. 

There’s the question of state workers who were promised one rate of pay but who failed to receive it. Every state worker should have a fair and evidence-based way to address problems like this, without having to worry about getting crosswise with a supervisor. 

Likewise, basic workplace safety concerns cannot be left to a department head who may not have even a basic, practical understanding of the jobs under his or her supervision. 

It has been well-documented for years that, Wyoming has one of the highest on the job death rates in the United States. We also have the lowest minimum wage, the lowest tipping wage and one of the highest earnings disparities between men and women. Wage theft is rampant. Sometimes that means workers simply don’t get paid at all. More often, the situation is more nuanced. Bosses sometimes demand that workers work overtime, but don’t pay it. Or bosses ask workers to come in early to do preparatory work before a shift, work that too often goes unpaid. 

This isn’t some kind of accident. In our most recent legislative session, a simple bill, HB 0196-Workplace transparency act, which would have protected workers from wage discrimination, didn’t even make it out of committee. That’s our normal. 

Add these factors together, and you see a state where too many politicians and bosses are effectively and continually telling workers to go away. 

It seems ironic that any of us would be surprised when some workers finally listen. 

There is a better way. Collective bargaining for public employees has proven to be successful in stemming the woes Wyoming faces. 

In a nutshell, collective bargaining would allow public workers to sit down at the table to talk with bosses about everything from pay and benefits to fairness, safety and more, without fear of retaliation. 

When I worked for the state, I gave it my all, until unfair work conditions and low pay drove me out the door. I devoted all my energy and professional skill to the goal of serving the public. I wasn’t alone. My colleagues shared my enthusiasm and energy, and many of them are still there. But the recent survey by A&I makes me wonder for how long. And that makes me worry for the future of our state government. 

We can and should give our state workers the dignity of unionism.The Wyoming state government should be a model employer. If we work together, it will be.

Tammy Johnson

Tammy Johnson is the executive director of Wyoming State AFL-CIO. She worked as a public employee for 24 years in Wyoming before entering the private-sector workforce.

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  1. Forget about unions, right to work, the ambiguity of inflation’s impact on wages, etc etc. The simple fact is that through a lack of any substantive raises, and with skyrocketed insurance premiums and increased retirement contributions, state workers are taking home less than 5 or 10 years ago. Through increased contributions their pay has decreased. The longer they stay, the less they make. They’re effectively paying the state to remain an employee. Not only have insurance premiums nearly doubled, but deductibles and out of pocket expenses have increased as well. Clearly a large number of employees are saying enough is enough. Municipalities, counties, and other states pay more. Same job, better pay. What would you do?

    Our roads are already horrible in the winter. I’ve never seen an inch of snow paralyze a state (maybe Southern states…) the way it does here. WYDOT has yet to discover salt, which most snow states did decades ago. If you refuse to use the best tool available for ice clearing, you need an army of functional plows and operators to pilot them. Given the abysmal pay for road maintenance workers, I’d say get used to highway closures. Of course, that doesn’t matter to legislators, because if it gets annoying to them they’ll exempt themselves from closure laws.

    If the state simply had a way for employees to get regular raises, both for COLA and solid performance, this would be a non issue. It’s like a car, if you don’t spend a little periodically for upkeep, when you finally break down the repair cost is shocking. The state is broke down on the side of the proverbial highway with our hood up and smoke rolling out. The repairs will get us back on track, but they won’t be cheap.

  2. Great piece! If I may add, some of us don’t have a private sector to run to, or we’d already be there. WHP Troopers never signed on to get rich, but we have evidently signed on to become poor. WHP Troopers are taking home $1,000 less per month than we did 10 years ago when considering increased healthcare, retirement, and inflation rates…. Let alone have our time and experience gained over that decade compensated to help us get our families ahead. WHO is doing what they can to retain its staff, but money talks. The sacrifices are many. The troopers who stayed over that decade have worked extremely short handed and trained countless new recruits, just to watch them walk away due to the risk vs benefit analysis.

    We’ve been compensated for being on-call (which occurs before or after every shift) at the same $1 per hour rate since the 1990’s. That may be the simplest analogy to show just how neglected we have been. We’ve been asked to stay quiet, and told that, “Now isn’t the time to ask for raises,” for years. It is time. It is time that the State of Wyoming invests and shows support for its law enforcement like many other states are doing right now. I truly feel more public support right now than any time in my career.

    I urge you to contact your legislators and lend your support to meaningful pay raises. Nothing can be done without their approval. The further they kick the can down the road, the more expensive the fix becomes.

    As the State Troopers Lodge President of the Fraternal Order Of Police I tell you, we must do better. The public deserves better. If Troopers were compensated at the midpoint of the most recent pay study, retention alone would fix the recruitment issue… we are our own best recruiters. With that said, A & I won’t even release the numbers, even though they have them. We’re currently operating on a 5 year old pay table, and many are nowhere near the middle of the pay bands.

  3. I don’t think it’s just about state workers here in Wyoming. It’s a general attitude that all employers have here in this right-to-work state.

  4. When you disagree with the left, you know you are on the right track. When your comments are censored, you know THEY know you are on the right track. Keep it up.
    This is entertainment for me. I can do this all day.

  5. I’ve recently moved to Wyoming from Minnesota to get away from this kind of faulty thinking and approach. I’ve only seen collective bargaining lead to the degradation of the value of services to tax payers and a decrease of individual responsibility on the part of city and state employees.

    Regarding leadership in any environment, work or otherwise, everyone deserves to be treated with respect, professionally and compensation wise. As an employee, if you’ve addressed it in an equally mature approach, things don’t change and you don’t like it, move on.

    Do you really want someone with their own agenda speaking for you?

    1. Zach: There’s only one prevention from employees unionizing and that is to treat your employees better than the union can offer them. Better pay, better retirement, better health care, better vacation, better maternity leave – employees that have these things will not unionize and the degradation that you observed won’t happen. I took a week long class on “how to win a union election” and actually fought a unionizing attempt and won one year; however, the next year the company lost because they just couldn’t change and truly was a company that deserved a union. The same applies to public employees – if they’re content and well compensated they won’t vote to unionize because the union can’t offer them anything they don’t already have. We must treat our state employees better or the inevitable will happen – unionized public employees. The coal mines in Gillette were never organized because the companies treated their employees so well the United Mine Workers couldn’t get a foothold. The pay and benefits at the mines were much better than any previous job the mine workers had ever had and the companies contributed to the employees requirement accounts. And safety was taken very, very seriously. Treat your employees well or else.

  6. One of the very worst situations is our prison guards – many just can’t make ends meet. However, they can go to Nebraska and Colorado and make twice as much. It seems like we’re training public employees to out migrate to other states where the pay and working conditions are better. I wonder, are the public employees in the other states organized in unions. There’s an old saying ” the company that deserves a union gets a union.” We can treat our public employees fairly – if not they will out migrate or unionize and force change.

    1. I can speak to one of your questions. Many public employees in Washington state are unionized. And they are strong. Even though I have retired from public works, I remain a member of my union and was a steward for many years. Unions don’t just address overall compensation. Unions also protect rights, prevent retaliation, enforce safety and provide support to employees. It is still my opinion that a union job is a good job. Many people don’t understand what a strong union will provide. So glad I didn’t work in a right-to-work state.

  7. As a former public health nurse and school nurse in Wyoming, I am happy that I am now retired. Reason- I would not want to deal with the attacks on the public health medical professions which I have seen since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. I am so weary to hear ” it is a personal choice” not to wear a mask, it is a personal choice not to get vaccinated” . Lay people making decisions with no medical training. And some elected officials enabling these decisions instead of supporting state health employees who are on the front lines and or watering down health mandates. Shameful

  8. The State paid a “bonus” to long time State Employees a couple of years ago – intended to make us stay. It wasn’t much, and it didn’t solve the problem. I’ve worked for the State for 28 years, and a new person coming in to my position would be making nearly as much as I do, within a $1.00 per hour rate. We do receive a monthly longevity rate, at $20 per month for every 5 years of service. That still isn’t enough to deal with the increased cost of living we are experiencing in Wyoming, now. I don’t know the solution, but we need to work together to come up with something.

  9. From my experience around state employees I can say unequivocally that another destructive dynamic occurs almost every winter when members of the Legislature – while meeting at the Capitol – make ignorant, hurtful, stereotype comments in the press about “state workers.”
    That really cuts deep.
    Lawmakers ought to think twice before uttering such shallow thoughts and their colleagues should remind them of that when necessary.

    1. This article is way past due and should have been titled, “State Workers Running Scared”. I have been communicating with State employees since the late 1970s. Never have I seen so many afraid to participate freely with the public. The current phrase I hear often is that everyone better “Stay in their Lane”. Meaning only do your job, don’t be proactive, don’t communicate with the public whenever possible, and absolutely never get involved with a controversial issue, without preapproval and associated talking points.
      It’s obvious that three things have caused this problem. 1) Hard right politicians are in charge, not the Governor. (Is Biden or his staff or Congress running the US?)
      2) Governor’s reelection is paramount.
      3) Individuals that lack leadership skills in public administration will always revert to power plays and used employee’s expertise when its expedient to do so.
      Otherwise, they are not relevant.