$1,000 bonus sought for Oklahoma state employees

The bonus would help state workers, many of whom who have not had a pay raise since 2006, while legislators determine how to develop a market-based pay system. A key lawmaker calls across-the-board pay raises a relic from the past.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: January 28, 2013

A state workers group is seeking a one-time bonus of $1,000 for state employees who haven't had an across-the-board pay increase in more than six years.

Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said the bonus would go to workers who meet or exceed standards set by their state agencies.

Zearley said he expects about 90 percent of the state's approximately 34,000 state employees would qualify for the bonus. The estimated cost is between $25 million and $35 million; the bonus would not be for those who work for higher education or public schools.

The bonus would help employees deal with cost-of-living increases that have occurred since their last raise, he said, and would serve as an incentive for workers while legislative leaders move away from granting across-the-board raises to pay increases based on job performance.

“Across-the-board increases are a relic of the past,” said House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton. “We need to really start focusing on market-driven principles in state government.

“We probably need to have a complete review of how we get there,” he said.

Shannon said he understands some state workers are underpaid, “but we need to be rewarding our very best. We need to be incentivizing good behavior and the best way to do that is to come up with a market plan that encourages good behavior and encourages best-market practices.

“This idea of continuing to pay people based on this 19th century model solely based on years of experience — we've got to get away from that,” he said. “I'm hopeful we can begin that discussion and start coming up with that model this year.”

Following the lead

Zearley said he is working with Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, on developing legislation to develop a market as well as appropriate money to pay for a market-based pay system. She has filed House Bill 1717, but it contains no substantial language.

He is hoping Oklahoma follows the lead of states such as Utah and North Dakota that hired an outside firm to develop an employee compensation study. Oklahoma lawmakers approved developing a plan in 2008. Effects of the national recession rolled into the state the next year, funding for state agencies was cut and the plan never was developed.

“We're looking at a two-pronged approach,” Zearley said. “You've got to look at the job first and you try to get positions close to … the private sector. Once you get those individuals in there and if they perform at high standards you need to have a pay performance mechanism in place.”

Employees performing well would get a bonus, he said. Their base salary would not increase.

The plan likely wouldn't be developed until after lawmakers adjourn their session in late May, he said. It would take three to five years to implement the plan and get salaries adjusted

“We can't wave a magic wand and fix the problem overnight,” Zearley said.

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