NCDOT study shows how state employees have lost ground on pay

An NCDOT bridge maintenance inspector photographs the Interstate 40/Interstate 85 bridge over the Haw River during an inspection. (AP Photo/News & Record, Joseph Rodriguez)
An NCDOT bridge maintenance inspector photographs the Interstate 40/Interstate 85 bridge over the Haw River during an inspection. (AP Photo/News & Record, Joseph Rodriguez) AP

General Assembly budget writers recently had a palm-to-the-forehead moment: A state budget misunderstanding has led to thousands of N.C. Department of Transportation employees getting unintended double-digit pay raises.

The 2018 budget contained a provision to boost NCDOT salaries for certain jobs in which the pay was no longer competitive with the market. Lawmakers thought they were allotting a percentage of payroll that amounted to $35 million. NCDOT leaders read it as a percentage of total budget that allowed spending up to $152 million over a two-year period.

The result was a rain of dollars. In a department of 10,000 employees, NCDOT has already spent $55 million on raises for 7,056 employees. Most got a 10 to 19 percent boost, more than 1,300 saw their pay bumped by more than 20 percent and a couple dozen outliers received increases of 50 percent or more.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Donny Lambeth said, “I think it got out of hand before anybody realized what was going on.”

It’s up to the General Assembly to figure out who is at fault, but so far there’s been no move to take the raises back. And there shouldn’t be. For what caused this incident isn’t so much one year’s confusion as it is a decade’s worth of salary repression across state government. First, the Great Recession ended raises. Then, since taking control of the General Assembly in 2011, Republican lawmakers have sharply limited pay increases. The rush of pay hikes at NCDOT was a small hole in the dike.

Since 2009, state employees have had five years with a zero pay increase and two years with a flat $1,000 bump. Three years brought boosts of 2 percent or less, but those increases have been more than swallowed up by inflation and rising state family health insurance premiums.

Poor pay is the reason thousands of public school teachers will rally in Raleigh on May 1, and it’s also the reason young people aren’t coming into state government.

Consider what a consultant’s study of NCDOT salaries found. Of 2,282 employees in the engineering division, 82 percent were paid below a standard that blended typical pay levels for the same work in the public and private sectors. Of 4,395 workers in operations and trades — including the people who pilot ferries, fix guard rails and remove trees after storms — 96 percent were paid below market. Nearly 20 percent of NCDOT’s positions are vacant and skilled young people aren’t coming in. Forty five percent of NCDOT’s employees are 50 or older. One in five of the department’s workers will be able to retire in the next five years.

Joey Hopkins, a 30-year NCDOT employee who heads an engineering division that includes Durham and Wake counties, said vacancies in his 600-position division had climbed to 34 percent. But the salary increases have changed that. “We’re back in the ballgame. We can compete a little bit,” he said.

The Office of State Human Resources is surveying pay across all of state government and will issue a report in the fall. Expect to see the numbers at NCDOT writ large. State employees are chronically underpaid.

Republican lawmakers have chosen tax cuts that disproportionately favor big corporations and the wealthy over decent pay for state employees and better service for the public. Those tax cuts are costing North Carolina $3.6 billion annually. The bill will come due as a graying workforce retires and younger workers aren’t attracted to state employment.

By accident, NCDOT workers got a holiday from austerity. Good for them.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com