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Oklahoma state agencies consider pay hikes as report finds many workers are underpaid

Oklahoma State Capitol Building
Kyle Phillips
For Oklahoma Voice
Oklahoma State Capitol Building

Agency officials are examining and, in some cases, increasing staff pay after a report released this year found that the majority of state employees are underpaid compared to their private-sector counterparts.

The Oklahoma Tax Commission is increasing its employees’ pay in response to the report that shows more than half of state workers are paid less than staffers in similar positions at private businesses.

Leaders at state transportation agencies are also using data from the report to review their employees’ salaries.

Of the 18,784 state employee salaries examined in the report from the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, 57% of workers were underpaid compared to their private-sector counterparts.

About 33% of those state employees were within the competitive range for private-sector jobs and 9% were paid more.

Highway patrol officers, criminalists and land surveyors were among those with the most competitive wages. State employees who work in food service, agriculture and child care licensing were among the workers with the least competitive pay.

Although the report prepared by Ernst and Young did not review pay for all of the roughly 31,000 state employees, it took a sample size of the most common positions in state government, said Caden Cleveland, OMES public affairs and grants management director.

The agency completes annual compensation reports, but the new report requested by the Oklahoma Legislature is more comprehensive, he said.

“I believe quite a few agencies have looked at it and have been able to pull away some findings and actually make market adjustments for their staff,” Cleveland said.

The Tax Commission is working over the next few years to raise employees’ salaries to be within 10% of what their workers could make in similar jobs in the private sector.

In a phased approach, the Tax Commission plans to increase employee salaries “with a focus on making meaningful adjustments where employees’ salaries were significantly below the state’s desired compensation goals,” the agency said in a statement.

So far, the Tax Commission has increased about 82% of phase one employees’ salaries without requesting any additional funds from the Oklahoma Legislature, the agency said.

“This market adjustment will allow the agency to better compete for talent,” according to the statement.

The Tax Commission budgeted about $4 million for the salary increases, but spokesperson Emily Haxton didn’t say how many employees might qualify or have already received a pay adjustment.

Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, praised the agency for providing pay raises while staying within its budget.

“State employees drive the very state government that all of us rely on in our everyday lives. … We need to work toward market-based pay across the board. If not, we will never effectively recruit and retain the top talent necessary to guide our state agencies,” he said in a statement.

Osburn authored legislation last year that required the in-depth review of state employee pay.

Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz said the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority are using the compensation report in addition to other local and national salary data to review the current salary structure of employees at both agencies.

“In order to deliver the best possible services to our citizens, we have to maintain a quality workforce and this is one key piece of that,” Gatz said in a statement. “We understand that this is one of the most competitive environments that we have ever seen, and we are going to use every resource we can to explore and assemble a competitive salary for our staff.”

The Legislature last approved across-the-board pay raises for state employees in 2019. Employees got pay hikes of up to $1,500.

Nearly 50 state agency directors received pay raises in the past fiscal year, according to NonDoc. The raises ranged from a couple thousand dollars to $90,000 for some agency heads.

Osburn filed legislation this year to incrementally raise state employee pay over several years so workers would earn at least 90% of what they would make in a comparable private-sector job. It’s unclear how much such widespread pay increases would cost.

The bill stalled in the Senate. Osburn said the legislation became a casualty of drawn-out education negotiations that left lawmakers little time to address other big-ticket spending items this year.

Candice Steele, Oklahoma Public Employees Association membership director, said the report confirmed what she already knew. Many state employees are underpaid and overworked, she said.

Steele said she’s hopeful lawmakers increase state employee pay across the board as a result of the report, but they can’t expect it to be a one-time fix, she said.

“I’m optimistic that they want to do something, but we’re going to have to do a lot of things for several years before we catch up and can stay caught up,” Steele said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Carmen covers state government, politics and health care for Oklahoma Voice. A Norman native, she previously worked in Arizona and Virginia before she began reporting on the Oklahoma Capitol.
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