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View from around the state: Big raises for only a few could lead to state brain drain

From The Journal Times of Racine, April 16


If everyone at the office gets the same pay raise, the argument goes, there is no incentive to do great work. It’s a compelling argument, as it its converse: Knowing great work can get you a bigger raise than your phoning-it-in co-worker is an incentive to do great work.

But if there are 14 people in an office and only one gets a raise, what are the other 13 to think? If your answer is “I’m going to find a place to work where I’m appreciated,” then you should be concerned about a brain drain in our state government.

In the first round of pay increases for Wisconsin state employees since union contracts were invalidated, supervisors delivered an average 6.52 percent boost to 2,757 workers, roughly one in 14 of those eligible, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on April 8.

The payout — totaling $8.2 million — is very different from union-era raises, which were much smaller on a percentage basis but cost tens of millions of dollars more because they were distributed to most non-academic employees. Another difference from the old contractual pay system is that more than half of the merit awards were one-time lump sum payments that didn’t become part the workers’ base salaries.

Within certain constraints, supervisors were allowed to propose extra pay for valued employees who did superior work, were seeking other employment or were underpaid compared to others in similar circumstances, the State Journal reported.

Cullen Werwie, former spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, called the merit-based payouts a good beginning and said that Walker will “work to keep the best and the brightest employees.”

Not if only one in 14 are getting a raise. Especially if you’re talking about DNA analysts or attorneys. The Department of Justice made most of its awards in those two categories, as the best in those fields can certainly make more money in the private sector, Executive Assistant Attorney General Steven P. Means said.

And there’s the issue: If you can make more in the private sector, and almost nobody in your department is getting a raise, what incentive do you have to continue to serve the public?

“Wisconsin just has very, very good public employees and we have very good public services,” said Charles Carlson, a compensation expert for a management consulting firm in Middleton. “You have skilled engineers and scientists and accountants. You could say ‘well, you just replace them with someone else,’ but they are very difficult to replace with all their experience and expertise.”

State government agencies should consider the long-term effect of rewarding such a small percentage of employees. The one out of those 14 who got the pay bump will feel appreciated and stick around. But the second-best in the office, and the third-best? They’re going to update their resumes and look for something better. When they leave, state government will suffer from the loss of expertise. Ultimately, the brain drain in government costs taxpayers through less efficient service.

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