Charleston Daily Mail – August 16, 2012

The pay scale in the state Division of Highways is leading to high turnover and low employee morale, a group of workers told state lawmakers Wednesday.

“It’s a broken wage structure,” John Thompson, field organizer from the workers’ union UE Local 170, told the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance.

Thompson and about a half dozen highways workers were at the meeting to ask lawmakers to consider revamping the agency’s pay scale.

UE Local 170 filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Transportation in January seeking data on worker pay levels.

Thompson said an analysis of the data showed that of the 2,454 transportation workers in the state’s 10 highways districts, more than half – 1,290 – have been with the department less than four years.

He said that indicates the department is unable to retain good, experienced workers over time.

“Over the last four to 10 years, there’s been a tremendous turnover in the Division of Highways, and that’s largely due to the fact that employees’ wages have been stagnant during this period,” Thompson said.

Frankie Armentrout, a 63-year-old Chesapeake resident who has worked on eastern Kanawha County roads for 25 years, said he’s seen the problem firsthand.

“We’ve had a lot of people leave,” Armentrout said. “It don’t seem like that we’re getting the quality workers that we used to get because nobody wants to work for $10 an hour.”

Thompson said the problem worsened after former Gov. Joe Manchin implemented a moratorium on merit raises in 2005. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin lifted the freeze last year.

But longtime workers say their pay still isn’t that different from that of new hires.

“The vast majority of Division of Highways employees are stuck at the bottom of their pay grade, and they do not move up,” Thompson said.

Gene Pickens, 50, of Ripley has worked in the Jackson County district office for 10 years and still makes $10.80 an hour – the starting wage for some new hires.

“I’ve got a kid in college, and a kid in first grade,” Pickens said. “I don’t know how the state can think anybody can make it.”

Nitro heavy machinery operator Gwynne Dillard, 49, said he started out making $5.13 per hour in 1982, and that has risen to about $15 per hour today. That’s just a bit higher than the starting wage for his job classification.

They can hire somebody off the street making what I’m making, and I’ve been there 30 years,” Dillard said.

Both men said they could leave to take jobs elsewhere, but they don’t want to lose the state retirement and health care benefits. But they say younger workers don’t have those concerns.

“They see what the pay is and they go somewhere else,” Dillard said.

Thompson said lawmakers should consider a Division of Highways pay scale similar to that of the state Parkways Authority. Under that system, workers automatically receive wage increases every fifth year on the job.

“It’s a more fair and transparent system rather than the current system that’s broken,” Thompson said.

Some state officials said they understood the workers’ complaints.

“We’re aware there are some concerns about the pay schedule,” Department of Transportation spokesman Brent Walker said.

Walker said the state Division of Personnel has contracted with the Hay Group consulting firm to analyze job classifications and compensation in various departments and recommend improvements.

The Division of Personnel and Hay Group have been working on the project for several years and are expected to have recommendations for officials by the end of the year.

“They’re helping us address any of those discrepancies in the pay schedule,” Walker said. “We think (their recommendations) will address those concerns.”

Workers said if the state could improve the pay schedule, they would avoid going elsewhere.

Dillard and others said they might even choose to keep working beyond their earliest available retirement date if the pay was good enough.

“If the pay is better and morale’s better, I may stay because I like the job,” Dillard said. “But if it’s not better, I can make a lot more money in the private sector.”