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Social Worker And Equipment Hauler Find Common Ground in Oklahoma Walkout

Kateleigh Mills / KOSU
Department of Transportation worker James Ray Griffith (left) and Department of Human Services employee Courtney Fox (right) both plan to walk out Monday to demand higher pay for public employees.

Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill into law last week giving educators their first state-funded raise in a decade, but many teachers still plan to walk out of their classrooms today.

Public safety officials expect up to 30,000 people at the Capitol, and among the thousands of teachers and education supporters will be state workers.

The union representing many state workers, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, wants lawmakers to direct $71 million for pay raises for all state workers. House Bill 1024XX passed both the House and Senate last week. The bill provides $2,000 raises for state employees who make less than $40,000 per year and smaller raises for those who make more.

OPEA says it's not enough.






Courtney Fox of McAlester lives south of Arrowhead State Park’s tree-budded hills. She is a social worker for the Department of Human Services who takes care of vulnerable adults. She began work at DHS three years ago, around the time her division, Adult Protective Services, lost a nearly a third of essential staff.


“I’ve had people who have spoken about just leaving, quitting, because they see where the state’s going,” Fox said. “They see that we haven’t gotten a raise and so they’re looking elsewhere for jobs.”


The state budget cuts to the agency directly hit the adult services division. Fewer cases were investigated and the workload sometimes doubled, even tripled, for remaining employees.  In 2015, the division investigated nearly 15,000 cases; By 2017, that number dropped by nearly half, to fewer than 8,500.


Fox and her husband want to have a baby and enough money to spend time with friends, but she says their budget won't allow it. She has thought about moving to a bigger city, but can’t because of family circumstances.


She’s grown frustrated with state employees not speaking up about their needs.


“I mean nobody pays attention to what we’re doing, it’s always the talk about teachers, and of course they need a pay raise,” she said. “But nobody looks at state employees and how we’re paid even less than teachers are paid.”


In September 2017, DHS requested a rule change from Gov. Fallin to allow the remaining APS workers more time to investigate cases, calling their three day deadlines for cases impossible to meet.


Fox said she’s noticed even some state employees’ needs are not so different than the people they help on a daily basis. Her biggest worry about the walkout is that legislators will forget some state employees’ needs altogether.


“If we don’t speak out and say what we’re having problems with and that we need a pay raise as well, no one is going to hear us and we’re not going to get it – ever,” Fox said.


She said even though walkouts are planned for McAlester, she plans to travel to Oklahoma City to protest.



Less than an hour down the Indian Nation Turnpike is Antlers, where Department of Transportation worker James Ray Griffith lives. He has worked for the agency for six years hauling equipment to construction sites.


“Anything and everything,” Griffith said. “I haul trucks, tractors, backhoes, trackhoe, dozers, stuff like that.”


Griffith said even though the transportation agency has halted projects instead of furloughing and laying off employees, many of his colleagues have taken on second jobs. Griffith works on weekends and had to take out a small loan to make ends meet.


“I haul cattle on the weekends and I help some people around here, it’s not much but it helps out a little bit,” he said.


ODOT saw state budget cutsof $346.8 million from 2010 to 2016. In 2017, the agency saw another $367 million cut, but was authorized to sell $200 million in bonds to offset some of the cuts.


Griffith said budget cuts have delayed raises and undermined morale at the transportation agency. He hopes legislators consider state workers during the walkout, not solely teachers.


“I just wish they’d make things better for everybody around here,” he said. “Nobody’s got a raise out there for 15 years. You got dependable people– you should treat them right.”

Kateleigh Mills is the Special Projects reporter for KOSU.
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