By Tim Talley
OKLAHOMA CITY — The last time Oklahoma Department of Human Services worker Jess Callahan received a pay raise, a gallon of regular gasoline cost about $2.40. That was in 2006
Seven years later, that same gallon of gasoline costs about $3.10, up 25 percent, and it's one of the reasons Callahan is finding it harder to keep up.
"My purchasing power, my ability to live a comfortable life, has gone down," said Callahan, a social service specialist in Choctaw County who earns about $31,000 a year. "There are a lot of people in state employment who are desperate at this point."
Carrie Croy, a Department of Corrections worker in Oklahoma City, has had two jobs for the last four years in an effort to make ends meet. In addition to her work as a probation and parole officer supervisor, Croy also works as a private security officer on weekends at her Oklahoma City apartment complex.
"It's difficult," Croy said. "We have a very high-stress job. My officers go out every day and put their lives on the line." But Croy said the salaries of probation and parole personnel are not commensurate with commissioned law enforcement officers.
"I should be comparable to other law enforcement. Right now, I'm not," said Croy, a U.S. Navy veteran who earns about $42,000 a year in her supervisory position with DOC. "It's kind of frustrating."
State worker salaries have been raised only twice in the last decade, a 5 percent increase in 2006 and a boost of about $2,000 in 2004. An analysis by the Oklahoma Office of Personnel Management reveals that state worker salaries were more than 19 percent below comparable jobs in the competitive labor market in 2011.
The analysis also found that the overall turnover rate among classified state employees that year was 13 percent. The turnover rate in specific job categories was far higher; 56 percent for probation and parole officers and 44 percent for correctional officers.
The high turnover rate among state workers is estimated to cost taxpayers up to $80 million each year in training costs and lost productivity, costs that state worker advocates say could be avoided if the state adopted market-based and performance pay plans for state workers.
"You've got to make that position, whatever it is, comparable to market," said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the 10,000-member Oklahoma Public Employees Association. "You've got to compare them to similar jobs.
"Just because you're in it for the service doesn't mean you're in public servitude."
Several proposals to adopt market-based and performance pay plans have been filed in the 2013 Oklahoma Legislature, which convenes on Feb. 4. One being developed by Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, will propose implementing a market-based pay structure over a period of several years.
"It's not something you can do overnight," said Osborn, who is working with OPEA to develop a multi-year plan to lift state worker pay to at least 80 percent of the private-sector average.
Osborn said her proposal would do more than just compare state jobs to similar jobs in the private sector. It would also look at jobs that compete for similar categories of workers.
"It may be in Oklahoma, he's competing with oil field jobs," Osborn said. The starting salary for a correctional officer in Oklahoma is about $12 an hour while oil field workers can earn as much as $25 an hour, according to OPEA.
Zearley said competition from the oil and natural gas industry is fierce across the state as underpaid state workers, especially correctional employees in southeastern Oklahoma, look for better paying jobs.
"The oil industry is sucking them up," he said. "It's not just job-to-job, it's the market."
As a consequence, state correctional employees are just 68 percent staffed, he said.
"They can't find people willing to come in and take those positions," Zearley said. "They can't find people to fill them at the wage they're willing to pay. A lot of individuals have had to take on more responsibility."
Lawmakers will also consider a performance pay plan that will reward state workers who meet or exceed their job guidelines.
"They need something to get them through," Osborn said.
Workers who have not received a bonus in the last year or two would be eligible for the one-time performance pay bonus. Zearley said the cost of the bonus would be $34 million if all 34,000 workers are eligible for it.
Croy said she supports a performance pay package as a way to give state workers some relief this year.
"I'm a firm believer in that," she said. "I think any job should be based on performance. That's how the military was."
Callahan said he also favors performance and market-based pay plans to prevent more experienced workers from leaving state service. They include his wife, former DHS child welfare specialist Kailee Callahan, who almost doubled her salary when she took a counseling job in the private sector, Jess Callahan said.
"At the end of the day, you don't come to state service to get rich. You come to make a difference. All we ask for is a fair wage," he said.