State employee organization breaks ties with union amidst employment ‘crisis’

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) – North Carolina is facing an unprecedented problem right now — it’s a problem that impacts every North Carolinian.

“The number one issue is the vacancy rate in the state government, which is 23% of all state jobs are vacant right now. That means taxpayers are getting 23% less services,” Ardis Watkins, the Executive Director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) said.

And it’s not just recruiting employees, keeping them is an ever bigger challenge.

“37% of state employees leave in the first 12 months, so the state is paying … They’re spending an exorbitant amount of money just that we’re spending it to train [them],” she said.

Now, in the middle of that crisis SEANC leadership made the decision to disaffiliate with the Service Employees International Union, a 2-million member union with local affiliates across the country.

“We’ve been an independent state association for 75 years, but since 2008 we have been affiliated with a National Union and that’s kind of what’s brought us to the moment we’re in right now where our Board of Governors, it’s made our membership , has decided they would like to begin the process of disaffiliation,” Watkins said.

The organization works with lawmakers and through a PAC to push for legislation that helps employees across the state, from prison employees to community college workers.

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NC Employment data
NC Employment data(NCOSHR)

“We are a voluntary membership organization made-up of state employees and retires. We have about 46,000 members and we have Members everywhere, state agencies, universities, community colleges and the public schools,” he said.

There isn’t one single reason for the decision and Watkins said there was no ‘high drama’ surrounding the decision, but the culture of the two organizations don’t necessarily align.

“Our membership felt that for a long time now, the way we approach labor, the labor movement in North Carolina, the way we approach our work in the legislature to try to get raises and benefits for state employees has been different than the way most of SEIU’s locals go about that,” she said.

For example, walk outs, strikes, and other collective bargaining efforts employed by some unions are not something that SEANC feels gets results. Watkins said SEANC does not think there is anything wrong with the strikes and said that’s a part of unions in general, but other union activities aren’t always feasible or beneficial for government workers.

“There’s nothing that we’re judging … it’s the more aggressive action though towards employers doesn’t work when you work for the government because we don’t by working for the government, we work for the taxpayers,” she said.

For Watkins, the vacancies and retention rates can be described in one word.

“This is, without question, a crisis,” she said.

State data also shows another statistic that could lead to even more employees leaving — more employees are reaching retirement age.

Nearly 30% of state employees are between the ages of 50-59, employees ages 20-39 make up just 11% of all employees and those ages 30-39 amount to 20% of all employees. Each year more people enter the workforce, but as Baby Boomers reach retirement age and change priorities there will be an increased need for more workers.

According to the North Carolina Retirement Systems data, the number is quickly going up.

“The number of retired public employees in NC is projected to grow from 194,000 today to 315,000 in 2022,” according to the state.

While that number was an estimate for 2022, the actual numbers from December of 2022 are even higher at 354,458 benefit recipients. State Treasurer Dale Folwell said the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest in the nation, and currently there are 653,704 employees paying into, or who have paid into the retirement plan. The strength of the retirement program is important because each month the beneficiaries receive $592 million from it.

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Governor Roy Cooper also addressed the staffing shortages after presenting his annual budget recommendation earlier this month.

“As recruitment and retention of state employees continues to be a challenge, the Governor’s budget makes the largest investment in state employees in 50 years by providing a comprehensive compensation package to ensure state agencies can compete for talent,” Cooper said.

Past victories and future efforts

In 2018 North Carolina became the first state in the country to set a $15 an hour minimum wage for all state employees, something that Watkins said was a surprise to many.

“We were the first state in the country to implement $15 an hour for all of its state employees, and it was a Republican supermajority. So people are still scratching their heads, ‘how did a group in the South get $15 first and get it out of a Republican supermajority?’” she said.

Watkins said it happened because of the way that SEANC functions.

“How anything we get done for our Members happens is by bringing facts and hope and and trying to be persuasive with those facts to make legislative leaders feel that’s the right thing for North Carolinians,” she said.

“SEIU’s doing what they think is right and again, we’re not judging them for that. But it’s not working for us in terms of the way our board feels,” Watkins said.

Now SEANC is working to convince state leaders to add more incentives to attract and keep more people.

It’s about money

Like jobs in the private sector, much of the recruitment and retention problems come down to one thing.

“To get those jobs filled, the state’s going to have to pay substantially more in some areas than they are right now, and that’s that’s our job to go and make that case,” Watkins said.

Watkins knows the general thought when it comes to government jobs is that pay is often lower than private sector counterparts, but said there is something that makes up for that.

“If we could make the benefits it used to be that you you knew you were going to make much less work for the state than in the private sector was the reality but the benefits made-up for it, that was the old saying, the benefits have eroded over time to where they’re they’re not the selling point they used to be,” she said.

Increasing the minimum wage was a major win for SEANC, but in order to stay competitive Watkins said there needed to be other changes too.

“I don’t know that changing the minimum salary for hiring at this point is necessarily the answer,” Watkins said. What we want to do is not have to recruit, we want to retain and to retain you have to not just handle the minimum salary, but those other people who weren’t addressed by the minimum salary being increased.”

By increasing the minimum wage but not increasing existing employees salaries, wage compression becomes an issue. Longtime employees might not feel valued and look for other opportunities.

Different jobs face different challenges but there’s one sector that stands out from the rest.

“By far the most acute vacancy rate is in the prisons,” Watkins said. “The prisons have had a problem with vacancy rates for years now and it is pay.”

Another sector facing shortages and retention problems is in healthcare.

“DHS facilities that care for our most vulnerable citizens of those institutions … they cannot compete. They lose people immediately and that’s especially bothersome because again, they do care for our most vulnerable citizens, who have nowhere else to go,” she said.

Governor Cooper is hoping to stem the flow of employees leaving as well and has already made several suggestions to keep workers.

“The budget implements a 5% across the board raise for state employees in the first year of the biennium and another 3% in the second year. It provides an additional 1.5% raise in the first year to employees in step plans and it provides funding to agencies to increase pay and bonuses even further for hard to fill jobs. It also provides one-time bonuses to state employees, more vacation time, and converts longevity pay into retention pay,” Cooper said in his budget press release.

Watkins is hopeful that this year’s legislative session will bring new incentives to encourage more employees to stay with the state, and to recruit new talent to help fill those gaps that are desperately needed.

WBTV reached out to SEIU for a comment on the decision of SEANC to disaffiliate however at the time of publication the organization has not provided a response.

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