At state agencies without a public crisis, workers fear they won't see raises

The struggle is real for Yolanda White.

She prays every day her car makes it to her job at Lufkin State Supported Living Center. She prays she will be able to afford food and gas until her next payday. And she prays her constant migraine headaches don’t affect her too much. The silver lining to her 2017 so far: being approved for food stamps.

“It’s a little embarrassing, it’s a little depressing, to be at this point in our life and we go to work and give it 110 percent and have to struggle,” said White, 51, who earns a little more than $27,000 a year as a direct support professional at the living center, which is a home for Texans with mental and physical disabilities. 

White is one of more than 6,200 state employees receiving food stamps, according to data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. In addition, 11,995 state employees’ children also receive food stamps.

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Advocates for state employees hope that lawmakers approve substantial pay raises — including for state workers like White who don’t work at an agency that’s facing a high-profile crisis. The state’s Child Protective Services, for example, is now under intense public scrutiny, and its workers are slated to get $12,000 pay raises.  

State employees say paycheck upticks in recent years have not covered increased costs of living and benefit contributions. Nearly 31,000 children of state workers qualify for health insurance programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Health Insurance Premium Payment Program and Medicaid, the joint health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

“They give us $50 … it’s a joke,” White said of her paycheck increase. “My rent goes up, grocery is through the roof, my gas went down, thank God, but it’s like we didn’t gain anything because we give it right back in some other area.”

In 2013, state workers got a 1 percent raise and in 2014 a 2 percent raise. There was a 2.5 percent raise in 2015 but the state wiped it out when they increased employee pension contributions by 2.6 percent. Most workers saw their paycheck plummet.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said the Legislature should not wait until there’s a crisis to do something about low wages.

“There are so many areas in which we need to have consistent, sustainable, quality workers to take care of Texans,” Howard said. “Having a living wage that’s competitive and allowing them to take care of their own families would go a long way to making sure we sustain that workforce.”

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Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, recently filed Senate Bill 571, which would require state agencies to create a plan for regular salary increases for long-time employees who perform well and make less than $75,000.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said lawmakers recognize Child Protective Services is in critical need. He said he had not heard of any requests for salary increases for other state workers.

“Most of the discussion regarding state salary adjustments and increases has centered upon caseworkers” in the Department of Family and Protective Services, Schwertner said.

Those seeking hefty wage increases for state workers say the outlook seems bleak after Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State address on Tuesday. Abbott announced a hiring freeze for state agencies and universities until the end of August to free up an estimated $200 million in the current budget. Entities under the freeze are banned from posting new jobs or filling vacant positions. 

“Texans know how to live within their means,” Abbott said in his address. “No less should be expected from their government.”

Abbott’s office declined to comment for this story.

The governor’s speech was “pretty alarming,” said Seth Hutchinson, vice president for the Texas State Employees Union. He said the hiring freeze “throws a wrench in Texans getting services they need” and is “going to make a bad situation worse” for understaffed agencies where workers are underpaid.

Hutchinson said it makes sense that CPS workers are getting raises.

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“There was a complete lack of recognition that a lot of these same problems are happening at other state agencies and universities,” Hutchinson said. “If you’re going to get ahead of future crises at agencies you need to put more money in these agencies just like they’re doing at CPS.”

For now, White said she will keep going to her local food bank and is looking ahead to her 14th year in her job and continuing to advocate for vulnerable Texans.

“As long as God gives me breath, I’ll give everything I have to the best of my ability to make sure I fight for them,” White said.  

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday imposed an immediate hiring freeze on state agencies through the end of August. His office said Tuesday that the Department of Family and Protective Services is among those exempted from it.
  • A board of lawmakers has given final approval for $150 million in funding to help pull the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services out of its crisis mode — but there are strings attached.  
  • Texas children facing abuse and neglect are going to be a major issue during the 85th Legislative Session as legislators grapple with less funding, a federal court case and troubling headlines about failings at the Department of Family and Protective Services.