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.
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.