Opinion

Kansas state workers are essential — they deserved a 2.5% raise and hazard pay

May 27, 2021 3:33 am

Members of the Kansas Organization of State Employees. “State employees are public servants, and without them, Kansas would grind to a halt,” writes KOSE and AFT-Kansas President Sarah LaFrenz. (Submitted)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Sarah LaFrenz is president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees and the American Federation of Teachers-Kansas.

After a year of incredible sacrifice by state employees, the Kansas Legislature denied these workers a 2.5% raise proposed by Gov. Laura Kelly and refused to take up a proposed hazard pay program that would give a $3 per hour bonus to essential workers.

We came into this year’s legislative session with the same goals we always do: to advocate for the workers we represent and work with legislators and the state government to ensure quality public services for Kansans.

We fully supported the initiative to provide hazard pay to all essential workers — not just state employees — because we know even a small and temporary bump in pay can make a huge difference. Every attempt to pass hazard pay was killed in committee. We asked for a modest 2.5% raise across the board for state employees to be included in the budget. The legislature removed that raise and passed enormous corporate tax breaks instead.

These legislators love to insult the work ethic, usefulness and necessity of state employees. So let me tell you who state employees are — they are public servants, and without them, Kansas would grind to a halt.

They fix our roads, staff our prisons and public hospitals, protect our children, operate power plants, keep our air and water clean, and make sure our communities have enough water to live and to grow food on the 48 million acres of farmland in the state. They live in Topeka, Hays, Wichita, Salina, Overland Park, Larned, Garden City, Oswego and basically everywhere in between. And, as a group, they’ve only received one raise in the last decade.

As essential workers, they are necessary for the continued functioning of the state and the economy, and during the pandemic they were therefore asked to risk their health to carry out their duties to Kansans.

The sad and maddening part is, like many other essential workers in both the public and private sectors, they are disproportionately underpaid for the vital services they provide. For example, a KDOT equipment operator in Salina starts at $29,827 with a Class A CDL, while the city of Bel Aire starts their equipment operators at $33,675. A certified nursing assistant in the Veterans Commission starts at $13 per hour, while there are private sector listings in Kansas for CNAs that start at $18-$26, depending on experience. At KDHE, the median salary of eligibility officers, who help Kansans navigate Medicare, is $23,737; private insurance companies start their customer service agents well north of $30,000.

The work state employees do is vital — in some cases, literally helping save lives. Though many of our state workers are critically underpaid, the Legislature just passed a $300 million tax cut to benefit big business and denied the request for a 2.5% raise for the state’s essential workers.

This pandemic year has demonstrated just how much we rely on our essential workers and has highlighted the unbelievable hardships, risks and tragedies these people on the front lines of the worst global health crisis in a century have endured. They deserve our respect, yes, but also so much more.

With state agencies opening back up next month and the new mask and gathering guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, policymakers must not forget the risks essential workers have had to assume and sacrifices they have had to make these past 14 months.

Some of the hardest-working people in our state have lost their health, their lives and family members while working to keep Kansas running. Instead of recognizing those risks and sacrifices, the Legislature added insult to injury by denying small yet meaningful measures, like hazard pay and a modest raise.

Without workers, everything shuts down. Kansans must invest in labor — including paying workers well enough to attract and retain employees in essential jobs and public services — if we want Kansas to continue to function, let alone thrive. If legislators cannot come to grips with that, Kansans will surely face our next crisis understaffed and unprepared.

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Sarah LaFrenz
Sarah LaFrenz

Sarah LaFrenz is president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees (KOSE) and the American Federation of Teachers-Kansas (AFT-Kansas).

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