Louisiana civil service leader defends state worker raises

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s civil service director Thursday sought to discourage state senators from criticizing $57 million in state worker pay raises handed out during the coronavirus outbreak, saying the comments damage efforts to recruit and retain employees.

Republican lawmakers have bristled about Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to strike language in the budget seeking to block the raises, at least until later in the year when the virus’ impact on state finances became more clear.

State Civil Service Director Byron Decoteau, who leads the human resources agency that oversees hiring and firing practices and pay rates for thousands of state workers, pushed back against the criticism in the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“It does a disservice to attract the future generation of leaders to state government,” Decoteau said. H added: “When we value perceptions over outcomes, we damage every investment we have made into our workforce, and we put the services that we need at risk.”

Republican lawmakers who sought to stall the salary hikes in the budget that began July 1 said it seemed inappropriate to give pay raises to public employees while private sector workers were struggling so much during the outbreak. They reiterated that position in Thursday’s hearing.

“The optics aren’t good,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who chairs the committee. “There’s a lot of things we could spend in this state with $60 million. That’s a week’s worth of unemployment benefits.”

When Edwards announced his decision to retain the raises, the Democratic governor said legislative efforts to stall the increases encroached on the state Civil Service Commission’s constitutional authority over pay rates for rank-and-file state workers. He also said it undermined a system aimed at improving recruitment.

Decoteau said the redesigned pay scale that included the salary adjustments — adopted by Edwards and lawmakers in 2017 — sought to reduce millions of dollars lost annually to high turnover in state agencies.

Decoteau said he understands the sliding scale pay increase system makes lawmakers uncomfortable while hundreds of thousands in Louisiana have lost their jobs in the pandemic. But he defended the “market adjustments” that workers received on July 15 as beneficial to the state.

“We’re trying to make sure we have an efficient and responsive state government, and that starts with our state employees,” Decoteau said.

Sen. Mike Reese, a Republican from Leesville, said lawmakers believed they had a responsible plan in their wait-and-see approach to determine if the raises were appropriate later in the budget year.

Hewitt suggested the concerns about turnover were misplaced this year, when so many people are out of the work and jobs are scarce.

“I don’t think people are going to walk away from a job,” she said.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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