Idaho Capitol

Idaho state Capitol

BOISE — Idaho state employee pay still lags far below market rates, according to the latest state-commissioned surveys, but total compensation, including both pay and benefits, is “no longer losing ground.”

Instead, it “appears to have stabilized at 12 percent below market in both 2017 and 2018,” Susan Buxton, state human resources division administrator, writes in the division’s annual report to the governor on state employee pay and benefits, which is required by law.

State lawmakers will meet in January to review the report, along with recommendations from incoming Gov. Brad Little; lawmakers have held two meetings so far to begin reviewing the data.

Based on extensive surveys by consultants, Idaho state employee salaries lost ground slightly compared to the private sector from 2017 to 2018, while gaining ground slightly compared to other public-sector employees.

In numbers, that means state workers’ salaries were 25.6 percent below the private-sector market in 2018, compared with 23.9 percent below in 2017. Their benefits were 7.3 percent ahead of their private-sector colleagues in 2018, down from 8.8 percent ahead in 2017. Overall, that put total compensation at 12.4 percent below the private-sector market in 2018, a slightly bigger gap from 2017’s 12.2 percent figure.

Compared to other public-sector jobs, Idaho state workers’ salaries were 12.9 percent below market in 2018, compared to 14.1 percent below in 2017. Their benefits were 9.6 percent behind in 2018, worse than 2017’s 8.5 percent lag. Overall, total compensation compared to other public sector employees was 10.7 percent below market in 2018, a slight improvement from the 10.9 percent it lagged in 2017.

The state report noted that lawmakers have funded merit-based raises averaging 3 percent for state workers in each of the last four years; the state doesn’t provide cost-of-living salary increases. Buxton wrote that the merit raises have “helped to maintain the state total compensation in many key areas.”

The state has more than 25,000 employees; the average hourly wage is $22.73.

Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian, the incoming chairman of the House Commerce Committee and co-chair of the Legislature’s joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee, said earlier this month, “We’ve been doing better.”

“Our state employees, they do such a great job, and we’ve been steadily trying to increase their pay, because we want to retain the best and brightest,” Holtzclaw said.

In addition to the annual survey by the national consultant Korn Ferry Hay Group, lawmakers in 2017 requested the addition of a custom, “Idaho-centric” survey. The latest results from that survey, conducted by Milliman, found that state employee salaries lagged the local market by 8 percent in 2018, compared to 9 percent in 2017.

During a meeting of the joint legislative committee last week to review the state report, Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, the Senate co-chair of the panel, said, “It sounds like they’re pretty thorough and scientific about it.”

Patrick advised lawmakers to study the state report, which stretches for 181 pages, before they convene in January. The report recommends granting “at least a 3 percent increase” for state worker salaries next year, in addition to keeping state employee benefits the same. “The state’s employee benefit package continues to be a key component of the state’s total compensation package for employees,” the report states.

It also reports on the results of a state employee opinion survey about pay and benefits, commissioned by the governor’s office, which drew responses from more than 12,000 state employees.

More than three-quarters — 76 percent — said they “were not interested in greater base pay salary at the cost of reduced benefits.” They also viewed any move to cut pay and increase benefits with “disfavor.”

Health insurance, vacation, sick leave and retirement benefits were rated as the most important benefits in the survey, regardless of the job or pay rate of the employees responding. Employees and the agencies that employ them will face a 1 percent contribution rate increase for the state retirement system on July 1, 2019.

“Over 10,600 written comments were received, which overwhelmingly indicated that employees have a negative view of a significant increase to family health insurance premiums,” the report states. “Employees used terms such as ‘financial burden’ or ‘stress,’ ‘hardship’ and ‘detrimental.’”

More than 1,000 said they’d look for other employment if their health insurance costs went up significantly, “as benefits is a big part of why they work for the state. Additional comments demonstrated that lower pay is generally accepted because of the better benefits.”

Patrick said state law requires the state to “treat employees fairly — we want good employees, we want happy employees. We’re a service industry, so for the people of Idaho that‘s what we need to do, that’s what we have to do. By reviewing this information and getting all the input we can, it’ll help us make a decision in January.”

The governor will make a proposal to lawmakers on state employee pay when he releases his proposed budget on Jan. 7; the legislative committee then will convene to decide on its recommendation.

“It’s an important job,” Patrick said, “and we take it serious, as you can tell.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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