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Virginia Sheriffs’ Association
The Voice of Virginia’s Sheriffs & Deputies

End erosion of wages for state workers
The Virginian-Pilot editorial
January 4, 2015

A job in the public sector has long been touted as offering lower pay and better benefits than similar work in the private sector.

But as wages have stagnated since the recession, and as companies have laid off workers and hired part-time help, governments have slashed budgets and payrolls to deal with weaker revenue. That has left public employees struggling to get by, too, on wages that have turned so low that they’re inadequate.

This year in Virginia, more than 3,800 state employees are making less than $23,850 a year, the federal poverty standard for a family of four, the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently reported. The figure amounts to about 4 percent of the state workforce and includes mental health workers, sheriff’s deputies, secretaries, housekeepers and more.

Nearly 1,900 state employees received food stamps in 2013, a 150 percent increase compared to two years earlier, the paper reported. Almost 10,000 employees qualified for the earned income tax credit, a federal subsidy designed to help and encourage low-income workers.

The data offer a sobering assessment of the state’s compensation and an embarrassing reflection of the value placed on the people providing necessary services and performing essential tasks. The prospects of a pay raise this year, however, appear bleak for all of those underpaid employees, a point underscored by the $2.4 billion hole that Gov. Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers have worked to fill through 2016.

It will likely take years for the state to bring its compensation schedules back to providing a living wage for all employees, or at least to the point where they were in 2007, when only a dozen state employees received any subsidized aid – and none received food stamps, as the Times-Dispatch reported.

But McAuliffe is right to prod lawmakers this year for small raises to sheriff’s deputies as a start toward restoring wages. During his speech last month to members of the General Assembly’s money committees, McAuliffe declared it a “disgrace” that deputies could qualify for food stamps. He’s right.

His proposal to designate $1.5 million to boost the pay for some 2,700 deputies represents a small but necessary measure toward making things right. It demands support from lawmakers, even in a tough budget year, and especially when millions have been given away annually by a legislature seemingly incapable of cutting ineffective tax credits and other preferences for special interests.

The state’s failure to provide adequate compensation is a disservice to employees and to the public. It’s demeaning, just as private employers’ adherence to the existing federal minimum wage – a woeful $7.25 an hour – is an affront to workers struggling to support their families. Twenty-nine states have raised their minimum wage standard above the federal rate, effective this year, restoring purchasing power to workers who’ve seen it erode in recent years.

Virginia would do well to join them, and to ensure that its own employees don’t have to rely on food stamps and other subsidized aid simply to survive.