The past five years haven’t been easy for state government workers and teachers.
The ranks of state workers have shrunk about 10 percent. Training has been slashed by 25 percent. Seven out of every 10 state employees make less than $40,000 — putting them well below what the average employee in the private sector makes and near the bottom of state workers across the country.
The state’s 172,000 teachers, meanwhile, have had tenure stripped away and are now evaluated based on student test scores, which next year could help decide if they get a raise.
“It’s been a rough ride,” said Ryan Druyor, a 30-year-old research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who lives in St. Petersburg. “Getting ahead working for the state just isn’t done anymore. We’re falling behind.”
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A budget surplus producing the first pay raises for state employees in six years has been celebrated by lawmakers as a chance to make up ground. Gov. Rick Scott, the Senate and the House have all proposed budgets with pay raises that can start to kick in this summer.
But as lawmakers haggle over budget details during the next two weeks, the pay proposals vary in shape and size, who gets them and for how much.
It’s a legislative exercise that has left many workers feeling oddly conflicted. While obviously thankful that their pay is on the upswing again, they can’t help but notice they aren’t being treated equally.
Druyor points to Scott’s budget where teachers get a $2,500 across-the-board pay increases. Civil service employees, on the other hand, would get $1,200 one-time bonuses. It’s more meager in the House budget, where state workers would get $1,000 raises — but not until Nov. 1. So for next year, at least, that $1,000 raise will feel like more like $666, before taxes. In the Senate, a flat 3 percent is proposed for everyone, which would translate to a $600 raise for someone making $20,000 and $960 for someone making $32,000.
That’s hardly a rescue package for a workforce that absorbed a mandate last year that they contribute 3 percent of their salary in the name of shoring up the state pension system.
“Teachers are making good gains, and they should,” Druyor said. “But the rest of the workers aren’t getting enough to keep up with inflation.”
State workers especially. Since 2008, the salaries for the 150,000 state and university employees have dropped an average of 1.4 percent. By contrast, those in the Florida private sector saw their salaries climb by 4 percent, according to a December workforce report by the state’s Department of Management Services.
Seeking to remedy this is Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who is the appropriations chair in the Senate. Negron said he’s mulling an across-the-board raise of $1,400 to $1,600 for those making less than $40,000. Those making more than $40,000 would receive $1,000.
Such a pay plan would cost the state $252 million, or $11 million more than what the Senate is proposing now and nearly $50 million more than what the House wants.
But Negron and the Senate also want to reward state law enforcement officers with better pay, as well.
“We’re losing officers to cities and counties,” said Negron. “It’s gotten to the point at the Florida Highway Patrol that newer officers make almost as much as senior officers. We have to reward our officers, who risk their lives in public service.”
Under the Senate plan, more than 4,000 Florida law enforcement officers and dispatchers would receive at least a 3 percent raise on top of the across-the-board hike that would go into effect on July 1. In addition, those with five years of service would receive an extra 2 percent. The total cost would be $10.3 million for a package that would give more than half of officers and dispatchers in the Florida Highway Patrol and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement raises of 8 percent.
By comparison, the House would provide a 3 percent pay raise for law enforcement that would go into effect July 1.
The raises for law enforcement are all automatic. Teachers, however, must be measured by a new set of student performance measures to qualify for their increases. The House and Senate want the state’s 67 school districts to come up with their own merit-based system for distributing the raises.
Dollarwise, the House is proposing $676 million for teacher salary increases, but that includes extra compensation for noninstructional personnel. The Senate is proposing to spend $480 million on teacher salaries, which is what Scott proposes, but nothing for employees who don’t work in classrooms. Unlike Scott, senators want the raises to be based entirely on performance.
That doesn’t sit well with teachers.
“It’s not fair,” said Amanda Wolfe, a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher in St. John’s County. “It’s like in my class, giving this kid a piece of candy and not giving to this one. You’re saying you like one better. You don’t say that, but that’s what it looks like to the other kids when you’re always favoring this student over them.”