JFC approves wage hikes for state employees, extra boost for prison guards

The Joint Finance Committee signed off on Tony Evers’ plan to give state and UW System employees raises of 2 percent in each of the next two years while approving higher pay boosts for prison guards than the guv had proposed.

But it didn’t approve money to fund his call to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all non-UW executive branch employees. It also decided to keep flat funding to address positions that have proven difficult to recruit people to fill and retain them once on the job.

The votes fell along party lines as Republicans changed what the guv had proposed.

Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, accused Evers of a “failure to invest” in pay for corrections guards at the needed level. He also called “silly” a policy the Evers administration implemented to give a $5 an hour pay boost to guards at six maximum security facilities that are facing staff shortage. Born said it didn’t address issues across the system.

“The governor certainly did not do what was necessary to invest in our workers at correctional facilities,” Born said.

But in the debate over the raises, Dems slammed GOP policies on state employees over the past eight years, particularly with prison guards. Along with a lack of significant pay increases, Dems said, some Republicans under Gov. Scott Walker vilified state employees in their push to revoke collective bargaining powers for more of them.

The double whammy, Sen. Jon Erpenbach said, was prison guards haven’t had a seat at the table to advocate for safer work conditions at a time when they’ve been forced to do double shifts and fill overtime hours.

“And we’re wondering why this happens. We know why this happens. We’ve been telling you this was going to happen,” said Erpenbach, D-Middleton.

The move to boost wages for prison guards come as the state has struggled with vacancy rates at prisons with 14.5 percent of positions unfilled at adult institutions as of April. That includes a high of 31.8 percent at Waupun Correctional Institution.

Those unfilled jobs also were a significant factor in the state paying $50.6 million to cover 1.8 million of overtime hours in 2017-18. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the most common reasons for overtime were position vacancies, sick leave coverage and medical vigils.

For most state employees, the 2 percent pay hikes would kick in Jan. 1 and Jan. 1, 2021.

For prison guards, the impact of those general wage increases, coupled with Evers’ proposal, would result in a starting wage of $18.59 an hour by the end of the biennium, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The impact of the GOP motion would push that instead to $19.03 an hour.

The move also would push up the corrections guards pay increase to Jan. 1 rather than April 2020. But it wouldn’t apply in 2020-21 to those prison guards who are now receiving the $5-an-hour boost to work at some of the state’s maximum security prisons that are facing staffing shortages.

The GOP motion also would create one-time bonuses that would be: $250 after 10 years of service; $500 after 15 years; $750 after 20 years; and $1,000 for completing 25 years and every five years after that.

Overall, it would mean $13.1 million more into correction guards salaries than Evers had proposed.

Evers has also called for setting a new minimum wage of $15 an hour for executive branch employees other than at the UW System. The move would require an estimated $93,300 in GPR to cover the costs. The committee didn’t approve the provision, but the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the Evers administration could still take the move if it wanted. It would just have to find money to cover the cost with existing funds.

Evers also had called for $12.1 million to fund market wage and parity adjustments. Those were created to address recruitment and retention problems with some state positions because salaries are below market levels. The committee instead kept funding at the current level of $4 million for the two-year period.