State employees haven't had an across-the-board raise in seven years -- but that's not stopping some of their bosses from cashing in.
The 9 Investigates team combed agency agendas and identified more than $250,000 in raises that state boards and commissions have given out to agency heads since this summer. The pay hikes largely coincide with an Aug. 31 study that provided new salary ranges for agency heads.
A front-line perspective
Carrie Croy knew she wouldn't get rich as a probation officer for the Department of Corrections, but she couldn't believe what her first boss told her.
"When I was hired, I was actually told I would have to have two jobs," Croy said. She thought it was a joke; it wasn't. Croy now works in security on the side, and plenty of her colleagues also have second jobs.
We showed Croy a copy of the pay study, which she called "ridiculous" after seeing the pay scales and being told of recent executive-level pay hikes.
"A lot of these directors are already making six figures," she said.
In a statement to 9 Investigates, Gov. Mary Fallin's office said she supports consistency in deciding what to pay state employees. During the 2013 legislative session, Fallin responded to calls for pay raises for state employees by calling for a comprehensive review of their compensation.
"The governor believes agency director salaries should only be adjusted if an agency governing body has rigorously evaluated the director's performance and determined a salary adjustment within the established range is warranted and appropriate under the agency's budget. This is generally the same compensation approach the governor supports for all state employees going forward, and it is an approach being considered in the ongoing state employee pay study," according to the statement.
Although detailed findings won't be released until next month, preliminary results released last week show that state workers' pay lags, on average, more than 20 percent behind their private-sector counterparts.
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association says raising directors' pay before looking comprehensively at state workers' pay is the type of inconsistent approach the studies are supposed to prevent. OPEA sent a letter to state agencies urging them to wait and noting that the recent pay study is advisory only.
Executive Director Sterling Zearley takes issue with the timing of the agency heads' raises – not whether they're needed.
"I'm not saying that executive directors do not deserve it – just like front-line (staff) do deserve a compensation increase. I'm just saying I do think we need to wait until we have everything in place," he said, noting that any broad pay raise for state workers likely is several years off.
But many agencies didn't wait.
What We Found
The 9 Investigates team discovered 20 agencies have given their directors' raises since this summer. Several of them were the amount an average state employee earns in a year. They include:
-A $47,000 raise for OSBI Director Stan Florence, increasing his pay to $127,000
-A $21,000 raise for Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Eric Pfeifer, increasing his pay to $256,000
-A $40,000 raise for Tourism director Deby Snodgrass, increasing her pay to $126,000
-A $40,000 raise for Terri White, who oversees the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, increasing her pay to $173,000
With more than 1,000 employees, Mental Health is the largest agency so far to give its director a raise. We contacted board Chair Dr. Andy Sullivan for an explanation. In a statement, Sullivan praised White's work at the agency and said the increase brought her in line with other public-health agencies heads in the state.
"The ODMHSAS board's unanimous decision to set a new salary for Commissioner White was based on individual performance, organizational performance, and recommendations of the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services and their vendor, the Hay Group. The board also took into account the salaries of other agency executives within the health cabinet, a comparison of program scope, operations and services provided, along with other factors related to agency function and outcomes. Commissioner White has introduced programs and measures that have saved the agency, and the state millions of dollars. Commissioner White has not received a raise in her seven year tenure. We feel the raise was warranted based upon her value in the employment market and our desire to keep her.
"The board is also tremendously concerned with the compensation of all ODMHSAS employees. It is our understanding that OMES and the Hay Group are releasing a second part of their study in November and that it will be focused on employee salary recommendations. We hope that state leaders will prioritize market-based pay for state employees, as is most deserved."
A Different Decision
The board at the School of Science and Math wanted to give its president a raise, but he refused to accept it.
"It just didn't feel right to me," said Frank Wang, who oversees the state-funded Oklahoma City campus.
Although his $75,000-a-year salary is well below what the pay study suggests he should be earning, Wang said the school's budget is already stretched thin.
"I could not be in an institution where we're talking about cutting individuals and cutting back people's hours and in a state of hardship, and take a raise," he said.
Croy wishes all agency heads would stand with their employees, like Wang.
"You need to look at the whole picture, and the directors should have enough integrity to say, ‘I'm not going to do it until you take care of my people,'" Croy said.
John Estus, spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which contracted the pay study, said large organizations – such as the state – typically look at director pay separately from staff pay. Moreover, he emphasized, many state employees have received pay increases in recent years – even if they haven't come from across-the-board raises.