WRAL Investigates

State workers' longevity pay less than legislative staffers'

Posted July 6, 2010 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated July 7, 2010 5:27 a.m. EDT

— The men and women who teach in North Carolina’s public schools, protect the roads and conduct the state's business have labored with sporadic cost-of-living raises in recent years.

One thing long-term state workers count on is longevity pay. No matter the economic climate, most state employees earn a 1.5 percent automatic pay bump after 10 years. It gradually climbs to 4.5 percent after 25 years of service.

Longevity pay isn't considered a raise, but the $150 million in extra pay for long-term state workers is rolled into the nearly $11 billion state payroll each year.

“If we can give longevity pay as a little something to keep folks around who know what they're doing, we need to do that,” said Ardis Watkins, director of legislative affairs for the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

WRAL Investigates has found a major disparity in who gets those built-in increases, however.

The longevity pay of most state workers pales when compared with the pay bumps for legislative staff. State lawmakers aren't eligible, but for the assistants, analysts and advisers who work for legislators, longevity pay is far better than most every other state worker.

In five years, for example, legislative staffers get an automatic 4.8 percent increase, or more than a 25-year rank-and-file employee. The rate climbs to 19.2 percent for legislative staff who have at least 20 years on the job.

“The bottom line is the average rank-and-file state employee isn't getting what folks are connected to the political system are getting,” Watkins said.

The longest-serving legislative staffers, all with respected 30-plus-year careers, are guaranteed nearly 20 percent bonuses every year.

Computer clerk John Young gets a base pay of less than $18,000. His yearly bonus is $3,400. Committee assistant Joan Leatherman earns an extra $5,700. Bill room supervisor Mary Pope gets an automatic $9,000. Administrative assistant Agnes Perry earns an extra $11,000.

After 32 years, Bill Drafting Division director Gerry Cohen earns $181,000 a year in base pay. He tacks on nearly $35,000 in longevity pay. That's more than the average salary for state employees. Watkins represents those workers and calls the disparity “outrageous.”

When asked if the practice is fair, House Speaker Joe Hackney said, “It's been in place, I don't know, 20 to 25 years, and anything can be re-examined. We like to do anything we can for all state employees.”

Hackney, D-Orange, said legislative longevity mirrors the automatic increases for judges, district attorneys and court clerks. Members of the state Utilities Commission, who are appointed by the governor, also qualify for the higher longevity pay rate, while North Carolina Education Lottery employees don't get longevity pay.

Passed in 1988, longevity pay was seen as a way to reward reliable long-term staff at the General Assembly. Staffers serve at the pleasure of lawmakers, so they don't have the same protections as many other state workers.

Last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue proposed a temporary cut in all longevity pay to save money. Lawmakers quickly killed it, but was it a case of lawmakers protecting their own staff?

“The people we heard from the most were not from our own staff, but from the judicial branch,” Hackney said.

House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman said lawmakers “might need to take a look to make sure those are evened up.”

“I wasn't here when that was done, so I can't speculate on differences, but I'd certainly be willing to take a look at it,” said Holliman, D-Davidson.

As for Watkins, she said that she doesn’t “doubt for a minute they would hate to see it go and fight to keep it.”

Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said that, when future budget shortfalls arise, longevity pay will get a second look.