State employee union warns of staffing ‘crisis’ as contract nears end

Low wages compared to local governments and mandatory overtime caused by staffing shortages are pushing more state employees out of their jobs and making it harder to hire new ones, according to a report released Wednesday by the union that represents state workers. 

Service Employees International Union 503 represents more than 22,000 state employees – about half the state’s workforce – and is negotiating its next two-year contract before the current contract expires June 30. In a nine-page report and accompanying press conference, union officials and state employees warned of dire consequences for Oregonians if new contracts don’t come with significant raises for state employees.

Low wages make it harder to recruit new employees, meaning existing employees end up working more overtime and burning out, said Melissa Unger, the union’s executive director. And high vacancies, especially among the frontline workers represented by SEIU, means poorer service for Oregonians. 

“All of this at the core impacts Oregonians, whether it’s longer wait times for services, closed DMVs, not enough people to maintain their roads,” she said. “The list goes on and on about how this impacts Oregonians.”

report released earlier this year by the state’s human resources department found that total state worker compensation remained competitive, thanks largely to generous health insurance and retirement benefits. Average compensation for state workers was around 100.4% of market rate for equivalent jobs in the private sector. 

State workers on average made less than workers at large cities and counties, both the state report and SEIU report found. They also outearn their peers in Idaho, Washington and Nevada, the state report found, though it didn’t compare Oregon worker compensation to California. 

Unger said the state human resources department focused on overall compensation and didn’t look specifically at wages for lower-level employees. Staffing shortages in typically low-wage industries, such as retail and fast food, have resulted in higher starting salaries, leading to Oregon’s lowest-paid workers being the only group that saw their wages rise faster than inflation, according to state economists

But state employees received a 3.1% cost-of-living increase last August, less than half the roughly 8% calculated rate of inflation on the West Coast. 

“They have not kept up with some of the increases that we’ve seen in other low wage jobs that pay similar,” Unger said. “Now they still get good benefits, but if you can go make $3 more, that’s a really important piece.”

The union’s study comes as the state continues to fix problems with a glitchy new payroll system that resulted in thousands of state employees missing paychecks or receiving too much or too little between January and March. State officials said Wednesday that they’re working to fix problems and that the May 1 payday went smoothly. 

Gov. Tina Kotek’s proposed budget included $515 million for raises for state employees, including both union and non-union employees. A bare-bones framework proposed by legislative budget writers earlier this spring called for $330 million in raises for state employees and $120 million in recruitment and retention bonuses for corrections officers and behavioral health caregivers. 

The initial legislative proposal also called for keeping vacant positions open when possible, anticipating limited funds. Lawmakers are reworking their budget proposal after last week’s rosier-than-anticipated state economic forecast

Thousands of vacancies

SEIU found that more than 8,500 state positions, about one in five, were vacant in April. In 2022, more than 4,300 state positions were left vacant for more than six months – meaning $610 million the state budgeted to pay those nonexistent workers went unspent or was used by agencies for other purposes.

“This is a crisis and it can’t continue,” bargaining team member Jesse Rodriguez said during the press conference. “State management needs to take action to ensure there is proper staffing in all state agencies, rather than being okay with having nearly 9,000 vacancies across the state government.”  

Rodriguez said the Oregon State Hospital has never been fully staffed during his nearly 18 years working there. Staffing levels have declined significantly at the psychiatric hospital in recent years, he said.

It’s a 24/7 facility that needs caregivers working at all times, so they take on a lot of mandatory overtime. That means workers scramble to arrange child care, miss family events and suffer burnout, Rodriguez said. 

“Understaffing becomes a vicious, vicious cycle,” Rodriguez said. “More people have to take heavier workloads and work more mandatory overtime hours than they expected. This has a huge impact on their lives outside of work. We are continuing to see those people leave the job when they’ve had enough.”

Michelle Miranda, who works in information services for the Oregon Health Authority, said the state struggles to hire information technology workers, especially at higher levels. That means lower-level workers end up doing jobs they’re not trained for or paid to do. 

“I do know of quite a few positions where the position was offered to somebody, and when it came to negotiating the pay they thought it was weekly and not monthly,” she said.

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.