By Representative Gilda Cobb- Hunter
Every day, South Carolina’s state employees are on the front lines enforcing laws, helping citizens and delivering vital services all across our state. They are the corrections officers, nurses, mental health workers, sanitation employees, firefighters and so many others who keep our state running safely and efficiently.
These men and women are some of the most important people in this state. But when it comes to compensation, South Carolina ranks near the bottom nationally. We may appreciate the work state employees do, but we certainly aren’t reflecting that appreciation in how they are paid.
In fact, a recent state-funded study found that S.C. state employees make, on average, about 15 percent less than those doing the same jobs in other states, and 18 percent less than private-sector employees.
Not only do our state employees make less money, they are spending comparatively more for health care and retirement benefits, too. In some states, the overall benefits package offsets lower salaries. That is not the case here. Where is the appreciation?
With compensation lagging far behind, many state agencies have confirmed major problems recruiting and retaining good people. Every year, we lose many of our brightest and best state employees to local government and the private sector, because what they are paid working for the state is often not even enough to live on.
Our Highway Patrol is a prime example. It’s losing more troopers each year than it is training — approximately 100 every year are jumping ship for local police or sheriff’s department jobs. That costs literally millions of dollars in state money as we continue to have to recruit and train new people. The high officer turnover is compounding already-critical problems in state law enforcement and corrections.
Enough is enough. With $1.2 billion in unallocated revenue this year, it’s absurd for us to continue to treat our state employees unfairly by letting their wages continue to lag.
Fortunately, a strong bipartisan group of state senators has called for this year’s state budget to include a 5 percent cost-of-living increase for all state employees. The House should consider the same, and I will lead that important effort during this week’s budget debate.
I call on my House colleagues to take a stand with me to truly represent the people who serve us every day as our state employees, as well as the 4.8 million South Carolinians who depend on capable and competent state employees for their service.
It comes down to this: Does it matter to us that good and qualified workers can’t make a living in state jobs and, in some ways, are being taken advantage of? Now that we’ve confirmed that our state’s workers are grossly underpaid, can we sit back and do nothing? How is that responsible? Can we expect to underpay our state employees and have it not affect the service delivery to 5 million South Carolinians?
The current compensation situation for state employees is completely unacceptable. Just wrong.
South Carolina has a problem we need to fix. Approving the 5 percent raise for state employees is a critical first step. We need to invest in the people who make South Carolina work for us all. We’ve gone far too long with a large number of state employees — even those with years of service — qualifying for public assistance or having to work two jobs to make ends meet.
It’s time to pay state employees what they are worth, which will help us retain good people and literally save South Carolina millions of dollars in ongoing training costs.
With extra money available, we have no more room for excuses. Now is the time to step up to our legislative responsibility and show those who work for South Carolina how valuable they are. It’s time to compensate our state employees fairly.