Arkansas' state employees, especially the ones at the bottom of the pay scale, need a raise. The state is flush right now. Revenues are up, and years of fiscal prudence have kept spending growth in check. In the fiscal year that ended last summer, the state ran up a surplus of almost $42 million, and it promises to be even larger this fiscal year.
In spite of this surplus, state employees are struggling. They need living wages. According to a comprehensive empirical study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economic geographer Amy Glasmeier, for an Arkansas family with two working adults and two children to live independently with adequate food and housing, each of the working adults needs to earn $14.18 per hour, or $29,494 per year. Yet at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, the state institution where I work, about 47 percent of full-time, classified employees (grounds, clerical, housekeeping, and physical plant) made less than the living wage during the last academic year. About 25 percent of classified employees earned less than $12 per hour, the starting wage at Target.
These low wages force too many full-time state employees to depend on second or third jobs, SNAP benefits, ARKids, and food pantries. Perhaps most tellingly, over 60 percent of the visits to the on-campus food pantry come from full-time university employees.
The situation at the University of Arkansas is not unique. A significant portion of those who labor at state parks, prisons, hospitals, revenue offices, colleges and universities, and other public institutions work under similar pay structures and do not earn living wages. Simply put, our state's dedicated and skilled public servants are not being treated right, and too many are suffering.
The solution, though, is quite simple. The Arkansas General Assembly needs to pass a measure mandating a minimum wage of $14.18 per hour for state employees and those employed by state contractors (to protect state employees from being replaced by low-waged contract workers).
Just last summer, North Carolina did something similar, albeit a bit more generous. The Tar Heel state's Republican-controlled legislature enacted (over the Democratic governor's veto) a law requiring most state workers to be paid at least $15 per hour. North Carolina's legislators justified the measure as not only the right thing to do but also necessary to keep state institutions operating at peak efficiency by lowering turnover rates.
Arkansas' legislators can use the surplus to fund the wage increase and then link the minimum wage for state employees to their own salaries. If legislators receive a 3 percent bump, then the minimum for state employees would go up 3 percent. This would prevent inflation from eating away at the state employee minimum, and provide a critical restraint on legislative salary increases.
Increasing the wages of the lowest-paid state employees will stimulate the Arkansas economy by boosting the aggregate demand for goods and services. Those state employees who would get bumped up to $14.18 will almost certainly spend their increase within Arkansas--more groceries, clothes and shoes for kids, dinner and a movie on a night out, or a weekend at a state park--rather than saving it. This increased spending will, in turn, create jobs and generate sales-tax revenue.
Providing wage increases to the lowest-paid state employees is nowhere on the governor's agenda, though. Instead, he wants to take the state's surplus and pass income-tax cuts geared for the highest earners. But this would be a mistake. There is little certainty that such a cut will provide much economic stimulus or propel overall growth. Trickle-down does not work. The state's wealthy are more likely to save their windfall than to spend it, and the part that they would spend is more likely to go out of state--shopping trips to Dallas or Kansas City, weekends in Destin, or skiing out west. Only working people--those who make our public institutions run--can be trusted to spend any additional disposable income in the state.
Increasing the wages of the lowest-paid state employees is a win-win for Arkansans. It would provide just remuneration to the dedicated and hardworking employees of the state while helping Arkansas' economy grow. Living wages are essential to the well-being of the state. It is time for the General Assembly to do what is right.
Michael Pierce, an employee of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, is vice president of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 965.
Editorial on 02/04/2019