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State workers rally for UW System employees, promised pay raise

On July 1, Wisconsin’s biennial budget went into effect, granting all state employees a 4% pay raise in 2024 and 2% for 2025. But as of Oct. 10, 100 days later, those raises are still not showing up in state workers’ paychecks. 

That’s because the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations (JCOER), co-chaired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), has not scheduled a meeting to approve and release the funds for those raises. Vos has in fact floated the idea of killing the pay raises if the University System does not cut its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.

On Tuesday afternoon, representatives from multiple state employee unions met outside the Capitol to express solidarity with UW System employees and demand the Legislature stop “hold[ing] raises hostage to try to kill DEI,” as Barbara Smith, president of the AFT Local 4848, the Wisconsin Professional Employees Council (WPEC), told the crowd. 

“We are tasked with serving the public equitably,” Smith told the Examiner. “We can’t do that if we’re unequal inside the agency. We think DEI is important to address egregious inequities in this society and in organizations, too, because we’re part of this society. So we strongly support DEI as a minimum step to try to cultivate fairness.”

Wisconsin Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee voted to remove 188 positions related to DEI initiatives in the university system during the biennial budget hearings. But Gov. Tony Evers line-item vetoed that section before signing the 2024-25 budget. 

Employees from state agencies ranging from the Historical Society to departments of Revenue, Workforce Development, Health Services, and Administration advocated for JCOER to meet and release the approved raises.

“It has been 100 days of waiting for what has been promised. One hundred days we’ve waited for JCOER to meet and they don’t even have a meeting on their calendar,” said Joanna Frasch, a board member of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1. “We’ll be facing an increase to our insurance premiums in January. In this time, student loan payments have resumed. Heating season is here, the holidays are around the corner and nothing is getting more affordable. It’s time for JCOER to keep their promise to meet and deliver.”

Scot McCullough, a member of WPEC Local 48, said that it’s important for employees from all state departments to stand together on this issue, because if JCOER is able to successfully scrap the university’s DEI programming, it could set a precedent that could affect all departments.

“One could imagine the Legislature saying unless the Department of Health Services reduces its COVID programming, they’re going to withhold funding for employee pay. Or, unless the DNR removes some other program, they’re going to withhold pay for employees,” McCullough said. “And the idea that that’s even an option is very troubling.”

The Wisconsin Professional Employees Council (WPEC) stated that even with the approved raises, state employee wages have not kept up with inflation. Over the past 12 years, inflation has gone up approximately 35% while state employee wages have only gone up around 12%. This past year alone, inflation has risen by approximately 8%, and state employees’ insurance premiums are set to increase by approximately 11.8% in January. 

“That said, [the 4% raise is] more than nothing,” says McCullough. “It’s something that state and university employees need, deserve and has already been approved. So for it to be delayed and delayed is frustrating.”

WPEC directly ties the decline in wages to the state’s high vacancy rate. The latest Division of Personnel Management report found that state agencies had  17.5% of jobs vacant, not including the UW System. 

 “While pay is not the only factor involved in there, it is a big one,” McCullough said. “Knowing that if you work for the state and try to make a career out of state employment, you’re going to be making less each year is a really frustrating and difficult thing to try to decide to do.”

Robert Hawkins, an assistant psychology professor, says that the university is visibly growing and seeing more demand for education but less investment. As a result more work is being piled onto a diminishing number of employees, many of whom are contingent workers on limited-term contracts.

“We’re getting larger and larger classes and contingent faculty are increasingly bearing more and more of the burden,” Hawkins says. “Increasingly, a smaller number of people is having to bear more and more of a burden under this budget deficit.”

Chad Alan Goldberg, sociology professor and a member of United Faculty and Academic Staff pointed to furloughs and potential layoffs at UW-Oshkosh while the state has a more than $4 billion surplus. 

“This is a politically manufactured crisis. This is austerity politics that has no basis in reality,” Goldberg said. “There’s no reason for this other than a desire to undermine and destroy the UW System and to undermine and destroy the public works, the public service that we are all engaged in, which is the embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea.” 

“That’s ultimately what they want to do,” Goldberg added. “Kill the Wisconsin Idea. They’ve been at it for a long time and we won’t let them.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F10%2F11%2Fstate-workers-rally-for-uw-system-employees-promised-pay-raise%2F by Christina Lieffring

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