Oklahoma’s public safety agencies are struggling to find enough workers and officials hope to address the problem this year with pay raises, recruitment programs and mental health support services, according to agency budget presentations heard by state lawmakers last week.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol is losing troopers to other law enforcement agencies with higher pay and seeing a rise in retirements due to mental health issues.
The state’s court system has lowered some of its requirements for court reporters in hopes of filling dozens of openings.
Prisons are losing correctional officers and other employees to higher-paying jobs at convenience stores.
“Sitting through these meetings, it’s really revealing that everyone is struggling for employees,” said Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on public safety, which heard presentations this week from several agencies.
Many state agencies have long complained about the challenge they face in hiring high-quality staff, and pay raises are not an uncommon desire each legislative session.
Retaining workers is key
But during Senate and House committee meetings last week, the need for employees seemed to reach a new level of urgency due to years without pay raises, increased competition, and the ongoing hiring challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.
“Court reporters are the most significant need,” Jari Askins, administrative director of the courts, told the Senate appropriations subcommittee on public safety.
The state’s court system already has started to hire court reporters who haven’t quite hit typing speed benchmarks, Askins said, as she presented her agency’s request to raise court reporter salaries from $42,000 to $52,000 at a cost of $2.3 million.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol is asking for a 10% pay increase for its employees to better compete with at least a dozen other higher-paying law enforcement agencies throughout the state, said Tim Tipton, commissioner of public safety.
“Ten years ago at a normal academy offering we would (see) well over 1,000 or 1,500 applicants,” said Tipton said, who added that the last academy opening saw 87 applicants. “That speaks volumes to the difficulty we face in recruiting.”
'Still not competitive'
The Corrections Department is requesting $32 million to increase employee salaries, which currently starts at $15.74 an hour for correctional officers.
“We are still not competitive with some locations like Target, OnCue or Hobby Lobby,” said Scott Crow, director of the Corrections Department.
Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Director Ricky Adams is seeking a 30% pay raise for his officers, especially with a pay raise of comparable positions just announced in Arkansas and the fact that the Texas Rangers, the state's OSBI equivalent, pays almost $20,000 more.
“I need to be able to pay a salary to attract (quality workers), and I could do that with a 30% pay raise,” Adams told the House appropriations subcommittee on public safety. “Obviously, we would be appreciative of whatever we get.”
More money to spend this year
Oklahoma isn’t the only state where public safety agencies are struggling to find workers, and coming pay raises in neighboring states could make the situation in Oklahoma worse. Governors in Missouri and Kansas already have announced their own plans for state employee pay raises and other states also are exploring ways to make job schedules more flexible in an effort to attract new workers.
State lawmakers will have about $700 million more to work with for the next fiscal year, but with much of that considered one-time funds, both the House budget leader and Gov. Kevin Stitt have indicated they will seek a relatively “flat” budget for next year.
State employee pay raise proposals also may have to compete with another push to cut taxes, including a move to further reduce the state’s corporate income tax, which House Speaker Charles McCall has indicated he will consider.
"I plan to pursue it, and it shouldn't be a shock to anybody if they see a new bill on that topic," McCall, R-Atoka, said last month.
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association is promoting an $80 million statewide pay rise plan that would include a comprehensive strategy for continuing to improve salaries in the years to come to keep all state employee pay levels at least 90% of comparable private sector positions.
“What we lack in Oklahoma is a true compensation philosophy,” Sterling Zearley, executive director of the OEPA, told The Oklahoman.
“If you look at the private sector and companies like Devon or Chesapeake, they are going to have a compensation philosophy and detailed plan … not just leaving it up to each division to figure out pay.”
Zearley believes lawmakers may realize the seriousness of the problem this year and hopes the state budget will reflect that, especially if they consider it a way to lower the cost of employee turnover, which is currently at 17%, according to the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
“I think they are really beginning to realize we have an issue, we are understaffed, we are losing people,” Sterling said. “They need to quit looking at each agency’s individual issue, they need to have a compensation philosophy.”
This story is provided in part through a grant by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. To support work like this, please consider purchasing a digital subscription today at https://cm.oklahoman.com/specialoffer/.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Labor shortage: Oklahoma agencies seek funds to keep pay competitive