The Ripple Effect of Low Wages for State Employees

This special Weekly Perspective is a collaboration between MO Jobs with Justice Organizing Director Richard Von Glahn and Empower Missouri’s Policy Manager Christine Woody. 

During his state of the state, Governor Mike Parson recommended a long overdue 5.5% cost of living adjustment for all state employees as well as a new minimum wage of $15 per hour. Missouri state workers have ranked last in state employee compensation for nearly two decades and numerous studies commissioned by the state have recommended significant increases for years.  Our state workers desperately need this increase in income. Even next year, when Missouri reaches the $12 minimum wage voters approved in 2018, the monthly income of a full time minimum wage worker will be such a small amount that they will still qualify for SNAP assistance. They will also not be able to afford the rent of a typical one bedroom apartment in the state.  

Low wages in the public sector have significant impacts beyond that worker. This week, a lawsuit was filed against DSS and the Family Support Division in Missouri for failing to uphold its requirements to qualify low income households for food and other assistance. Underpaid state employees can’t meet the demand of low wage Missourians, resulting in our neighbors going hungry and without health care. Further compounding the issue, turnover rates at FSD are near 40%, and other public agencies have turn over rates nearing 70% annually. Our neighbors in need of food assistance can’t access it, and those who need healthcare are waiting months for approval. 

Despite this long overdue and still insufficient recommendation, the House did not ultimately pass the Governor’s proposal. Instead they opted to create a two tier wage system in state government, a $15 minimum wage for direct care staff in some agencies and a $12 minimum for other agencies and for support staff. This proposal has the potential to block thousands of public servants from receiving even the modest recognition and reward that the Governor proposed for their service. 

During debate on the issue, House Budget Chair Representative Cody Smith indicated that he did not favor giving the larger increase to jobs that require “little training or skill.” When pressed if employees making $12 an hour, less than $25,000 a year, could truly afford to live independently, he replied “it depends on what your definition of living is” and that perhaps people do not need to be paid enough to live independently. The following week, Representative Smith introduced a bill that could lead to the repeal of medicaid expansion, a critical safety net provision recently enacted by Missouri voters that provides healthcare for thousands of hard working Missourians, potentially including state workers making just $12 an hour.

This is the irony of some politicians’ positions on work and the safety net. They make bold pronouncements about the value and necessity of work, but then actively promote policies that they themselves admit will not allow you to live independently. They seek to cut the safety net that their own policies make so very necessary for families.

Not all politicians feel this way. Representative Rudy Veit, a Republican who represents an area just outside of Jefferson City remarked during debate “I don’t know anybody working for the state who is not worth $15 an hour.” I would expand that statement to include anybody who is working, period. There was a time when government jobs were good jobs, where you could feel proud of your work, feed your family, and build a confident future. When state lawmakers readily admit they don’t believe full-time work should pay for a full life, we take the dignity and hope away from hardworking Missourians. 

Missouri voters have shown our compassion for working families time and time again. We have voted to increase the minimum wage twice and repealed attacks on collective bargaining rights that would have lowered wages. We have also voted to have a strong safety net for when workers fall on hard times by expanding eligibility for medicaid. The recent debate on state worker pay shows why voters taking these matters to our own hands via our state’s long tradition of initiative petitions was so necessary. Some politicians in Jefferson City are just out of touch. 

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