The state of Oklahoma's employee compensation system is “out of whack” with too much money being put into benefits and not enough into salaries, members of a state House committee were told Tuesday.
“Our model is heavy on benefits and light on pay,” Preston Doerflinger, director of the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services, told members of the state House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
State employee salaries trail market salaries by an average of more than 20 percent, consultant Neville Kenning said, providing committee members with an early glimpse at some of the findings of a widely anticipated state employee compensation study due to be released early next month.
The state has good benefits, but they aren't good enough to offset the lower pay, he said.
“Salary matters, and we need to start dispelling the myth we don't need to be competitive on salaries,” Kenning said.
‘More than cushy benefits'
Low salaries are particularly problematic in attracting good, young employees, he indicated, citing survey results that show young employees are much more interested in salaries than benefits.
Doerflinger agreed, saying, “Today's worker wants more than cushy benefits.”
Kenning indicated that state agency directors have increasingly shifted classified employees that fall under the merit protection system to unclassified positions traditionally reserved for executives and highly paid professionals to get around salary limitations.
The numbers of unclassified employees have increased to the point that they now represent 32 percent of the state government workforce, he said.
“To be quite frank, it is out of control in Oklahoma,” Kenning said.
The state job category with the highest number of unclassified employees is now Secretary II, which should not be an unclassified job, he said.
Doerflinger described the state's compensation process as a “chaotic crapshoot.”
“Every agency does its own thing,” he said. “Sometimes no one does anything.”
Kenning said consultants are developing a five-year plan to alter the mix in the amount of compensation dollars devoted to pay versus benefits.
“You need to do something next session from a salary perspective,” he said. “The question is how much can you afford.”
Kenning said the Legislature needs to start by increasing salaries rather than trimming benefits.
There has been a lot of publicity about state employees not having received an across-the-board pay increase in six years, but that doesn't mean all state employees have gone that long without a raise, particularly with the shift of many employees from classified to unclassified status.
Some have received raises
There are 33,000 state employees in executive branch state agencies, not counting teachers and higher education employees, and last year nearly 12,000 of those employees got raises, said Lucinda Meltabarger, administrator of the state's human capital management system.
That doesn't include annual longevity pay granted to all employees who have worked for the state more than a year.
Still, low pay is an issue for state employees.
Sterling Zearling, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said he believes the state has the money to give raises if it will make the issue a priority.