State worker pay increase headed for final Missouri House vote

Members of the Missouri House of Representatives recite the Pledge of Allegiance as they begin their annual legislative session Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Jefferson City, Missouri.(AP Photo/David A. Lieb)

A proposed wage increase for state employees is headed for its final vote in the Missouri House after lawmakers Wednesday perfected a version setting the category of workers who would earn a $15 an hour minimum wage and those who would not.

Gov. Mike Parson's supplemental budget recommendation included a $15 minimum wage for all state workers and 5.5 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA), though the version before the House earmarked the $15 minimum only for direct care workers and agencies, including the departments of Social Services, Health and Senior Services and Mental Health.

Those working in state hospitals, veterans homes and the Children's Division would be covered under the appropriation.

The remainder of the state workforce would have a $12 an hour minimum wage, in line with where the statewide minimum wage will settle next year after incrementally increasing every year since 2017. Workers would get the 5.5 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) or their respective minimum wage, whichever is greater.

The bill, sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, was before the House for perfection Wednesday, where its pay plan emerged unchanged at the end of the day's session.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, offered an amendment that would have restored the governor's original proposal amounts without codifying an official minimum wage, kicking off a lengthy debate on the floor.

Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, has been a vocal proponent of the governor's proposal alongside other local legislators. While he noted the $15 an hour proposal would be a significant benefit for state employees, he said Smith's version likely made the bill more palatable to the Republican majority.

"I live here, I have family members that work for the state," Veit said. "We're talking about $7 million, which in a budget of our size is not that significant, but for the people making $12, $15, that's real money. ... I don't know anybody working for the state that isn't worth $15 an hour.

"Our chairman took all this into consideration," Veit continued. "He's well aware of the political environment and well aware of the urgency of getting a bill through, something that would pass and not get tied up. He took the time to do what he thought was the right thing to do, and I give him credit for that."

Veit ultimately voted in favor of the amendment to reinstate the $15 an hour minimum wage, though he said Smith's version of the bill setting two pay rates was at least a start to addressing the turnover issue.

Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, voted against the proposed amendment. Griffith, who chairs the House Veterans Committee, said he believes the substitute was a "step in the right direction" for workers in Missouri's veteran's homes and that he was content with Smith's proposal as a start.

Smith said his version of the pay plan was a sustainable way to respond to a worker shortage the Legislature might be able to keep pace with in future budgets.

"There's a workforce crisis across the public and private sectors, so Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma -- we're all in this similar situation where it seems that a certain percentage of the workforce has just vaporized and hasn't come back to work," Smith said. "We're investing $92 million into our state workforce just like I said, and I think there's an expectation that we will do that again in the next fiscal year and keep that up."

Merideth pointed to comments made by Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe in committee this week. Kehoe said he supported an adjustment for state workers, citing instances of seeing state employees using food stamps to get by as well as testimony from state departments advocating for the increase.

"The departments are telling us and the governor is telling us they need the funds to do it. Who do we believe -- the people running these departments, or somebody in this body?" Merideth asked. "I know it's hard to vote against your budget chair, but how much political courage does it take to stand publicly behind your governor, your lieutenant governor and the workers of this state? We have an opportunity as a bipartisan legislature to stand behind our governor and stand behind our workers and invest in the services that run our state."

Smith's version with the separate minimum wages was sent to members of the Budget Committee on Friday, ahead of Monday's hearing, a move several Democrats said did not give them adequate time to draft amendments or request additional testimony from state agencies.

Lawmakers from the Kansas City area pointed to the Jackson County Courthouse, which they said saw a 10 percent increase in vacancies following the substitute bill's passage by the committee, dropping to 30 percent of its typical workforce.

They also pointed to comparisons between the private sector's pay rates and the state's amid Smith's assertions that a blanket $15 an hour minimum would create an "unfair advantage" over the private sector. Supporters of Merideth's amendment said many private employers paid above the state minimum wage already.

Another point of contention was Republicans' stance that the bill would allow department heads the flexibility to enact pay increases if they felt it necessary in the wake of Department of Transportation (MoDOT) Director Patrick McKenna's questioning by lawmakers over his decision to enact pay raises for his department that were not accounted for in appropriations for this fiscal year. McKenna said the plan was a response to substantial turnover rates across his department.

Full-time employees making $12 an hour make $24,960 a year, while employees making $15 an hour make $31,200 annually.

Smith said the jobs that would pay minimum wage were not meant to provide a living, rather to give unskilled workers the opportunity to get a start and work their way up.

When asked if he thought someone could live on $25,000 a year, Smith said, it "depends on what your definition of 'living' is."

Meredith's amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 52-96, while the bill itself was perfected by a vote of 112-8, with 30 members voting present. Veit and Griffith voted in favor of the bill.

Lawmakers also debated the bill's allocations for the state's Medicaid division and education before closing out their work on its language.

The bill awaits a final vote before progressing to the Senate for its approval.

Around 20 percent of state employees make less than $15 an hour, according to the Office of Administration.

The governor's recommended increases would cost $91 million, with $52 million set to come from general revenue. Smith's version would reduce the plan by around 7.5 percent, legislators said.

Local lawmakers have supported the proposal, noting the state is the largest employer in their districts. Veit and Griffith joined Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, on a letter to their colleagues ahead of session encouraging them to pass the proposal.

The trio also named an adjustment as one of their top priorities this session before the Jefferson City business community.

Smith proposed the new version of the bill Monday during a hearing of his House Budget Committee. Despite push back from across the aisle, it made it through to go to the floor.

Parson originally sought to have the bill signed by the beginning of February.

Vacancies remain high as well for positions across the executive branch: Parson said vacancy rates were 30-100 percent for certain positions when unveiling the proposal and called on the Legislature to enact his recommendations to attract more candidates for state work.

There are around 500 vacancies across state government around Jefferson City, according to the state's hiring site.

Around 14,000 state employees live in the Jefferson City area, according to statistics from the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Click the link below to read the full bill:

• HB 3014: Appropriation bill

Sponsor: Rep. Cody Smith