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story.lead_photo.caption Employees leave the Harry S. Truman State Office Building in Jefferson City on Friday afternoon, May 1, 2020. Photo by Liv Paggiarino / Fulton Sun.

Missouri still ranks among the worst in pay for state government employees.

Despite small salary increase efforts over the past few years, the state still holds the dubious distinction of ranking second to last in state pay for public employees, based on data from 2020.

The ranking comes from OpenPayrolls, the largest nationwide public salary database in the United States. The ranking is based on the average employee salary for each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The comparison lacks 2020 data for Delaware and Oregon, making Missouri's average state employee salary of $28,871.45 only higher than Colorado.

According to OpenPayrolls, 34 states had an average salary above $50,000, and the average salary of all 50 states in 2020 was $57,113.

Last year, Missouri paid $2.197 billion to cover all public employee salaries, according to the Missouri Accountability Portal, an online database of state expenditures maintained by the Office of Administration.

So far this year, the state has paid a total of $1.526 billion for employee compensation through Sept. 15, the state's last pay day.

Chris Moreland, communications director for the Office of Administration, said the state spent $3.28 billion on employee salaries and fringe benefits for fiscal year 2021, meaning it made up approximately 11.1 percent of the state expenditures.

Missouri's low ranking is nothing new.

OpenPayrolls ranked the state last for average state government employee pay in 2019, 2018 and 2017. It was ranked second to last in 2016 and 2015, just above West Virginia both years.

In an effort to turn the statistics around, as well as attract and retain employees, several state agencies have made attempts to increase employee pay.

The Missouri General Assembly passed a 2 percent, cost-of-living pay raise for all state government employees, and a 2.5 percent increase for elected officials and its members, set to go into effect next January.

Other states, such as Arkansas, Massachusetts and North Carolina, as well as the federal government, are also looking at increasing salaries for government employees, teachers and first responders this year — meaning Missouri may not be making progress in the area.

The state, however, sees its pay raise as an investment in its ability to attract top talent, recruit, and retain staff in struggling departments and remain competitive with the market.

The measure is expected to add $44.04 million each year to the state's total appropriation for state employee compensation, Moreland said.

State Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, has been a long-time supporter of state employee pay increases.

"I hope this increase will help make state worker pay more competitive and ensure we retain high quality workers," Bernskoetter said after the Senate passed its budget bills and the pay increase last session.

The Legislature also approved $263,893 for performance incentives for high-achieving state government employees, but Gov. Mike Parson vetoed the measure.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is one department hoping salary increases help curb its workforce shortage issues.

MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said the department has to move forward soon with increasing pay for employees.

MoDOT has had substantial turnover in recent years with more than 50 percent of the department leaving over the last four years.

"The combination of pay and benefits is actually significantly off the market rate, not only for our maintenance professionals but also throughout the organization," McKenna said.

According to MoDOT's Human Resources Office, the average salary among its 539 maintenance workers is $31,026 annually or $14.92 per hour. The starting wage is $14.75.

Even with additional requirements and experience, MoDOT's field employees don't make much more.

The average salary for its 335 intermediate maintenance workers is $33,949 or $16.32 per hour. The average salary for its 899 senior maintenance workers is $37,454 or $18 per hour.

According to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, Highway maintenance workers in the industry earn an average of $36,820 annually, and the top quarter make an average of $39,870 annually.

With those three positions accounting for 36 percent of the department's workforce, its employment issues are becoming operational issues, particularly as it prepares for winter and plowing season, McKenna said.

"The primary issue there is the market rate has significantly exceeded what we pay our team for what I would consider to be less strenuous and difficult work," McKenna said. "Our crews are leaving for even department store work, which is really kind of heartbreaking when you consider the skill and abilities of these folks out in the field."

According to the MERIC, the average retail salesperson makes an annual salary of $30,640.

McKenna said the issue isn't unique to MoDOT, but the department will need to address it to ensure its workforce remains staffed and high quality.

MoDOT management and the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission are looking at how best to address the issue, McKenna said.

Moreland said the state reviews market data, economic indicators and salary survey sources to remain competitive on salary and benefits with various industries and determine any salary structure adjustments.

The Department of Corrections is another department using salary increases to address its staffing concerns.

In addition to the 2 percent increase for all state employees, the Department of Corrections was approved for salary increases for correctional officers and food service workers, positions it considers to have high turnover.

The increase puts the new starting salary for a Missouri corrections officer at $36,000. Experienced correction officers also earn an additional 1 percent for every two years of service, up to 20 years.

Karen Pojmann, DOC communications director, said the positions have had salary increases totaling 24 percent over four years.

Pojmann said the department has seen an increase in applications since the salary increases were implemented July 1, but it's too early to attribute any increase to salary boosts.

"It's still a bit early to be able to definitely track trends or draw conclusions about cause-and-effect relationships, but it seems like we're moving in the right direction," Pojmann said. "That said, we still have a staffing shortage throughout the state, and we're investing resources in recruitment."

Still, she said the department is receiving more applications than people it is losing, which is a good sign.

Missouri's employment system also recently became an at-will system — meaning an employer can discipline or fire an employee for any reason not prohibited by law.

The state moved away from its 70-year-old Merit System, which required employees to be hired based on skills tests and provided due process protections in disciplinary actions, in 2018.

At the time, Sarah Steelman, Office of Administration commissioner, said the change would make it easier for the state to recruit and hire people.

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