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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — State employees in Missouri could see a pay raise as soon as February if lawmakers approve the increase next month.

Missouri employs 50,0000 workers who are among the lowest-paid state workers in the nation. Currently, the Show-Me State has a historic amount of money, and the governor wants it to boost state workers’ pay to at least $15 an hour.

“When all of a sudden we become a training ground for an employee that’s been there five or ten years, and we’re losing employees, we need to reevaluate what we’ve done and what we can do,” Parson said Tuesday.

When lawmakers return for session next month, Parson is asking them to pass a 5.5% Cost of Living Adjustment and $15 an hour minimum wage for state employees.

“We’re paying some of these people $26,000 and $27,000 a year, and they are making decisions about does a kid stay in somebody’s home, do they not stay in a home — major decisions,” Parson said. “I don’t think it’s a major increase for a lot of people. It’s a modest increase to state employees that have been here a long time. I think it’s long overdue.”

Over the summer, the governor vetoed $2.1 million that was supposed to go to increasing the salaries of workers in the Children’s Division under the Missouri Department of Social Services. In his veto letter, Parson said lawmakers should not single out one specific agency for a pay raise.

“The reason we did $15 an hour, that’s kind of competing with baseline employees all over the state,” Parson said. “Whether it’s convenience stores, whether it’s fast food you name it on those entry levels, about everybody’s at that $15 level.”

The minimum wage for private employers in Missouri in 2021 is $10.21. By next year, it will be $11.15, increasing 85 cents each year through 2023. When asked about increasing that wage, Parson said the economy is already taking care of it.

“I’m not a big fan of the minimum wage requirements, but I think what you’re seeing just supply and demand are taking care of itself,” Parson said. “I think wherever you go right now; you’re going to find people are out there really searching for good-paying jobs.”

Rep. Peter Merideth is the ranking minority leader on the House Budget Committee. He said Tuesday Democrats support the pay raise.

“We are at a crisis point honestly with so many of these departments where we cannot fill the jobs and they’re about to have to freeze services completely,” Merideth said “We can’t keep people here, we can’t fire people, they go over to Walmart or fast-food restaurants and make more and these are difficult jobs.”

Merideth said this has been a problem for the state long before COVID, but the pandemic amplified the problem.

“We might have been able to get in front of some of this instead of acting from behind and fix a problem that may be beyond fixing right now,” Merideth said. “We have wait times that are out of control for just about any service whether it’s DOR [Department of Revenue] or social services. People are sitting on phones for hours just waiting for someone to respond.”

At the end of the fiscal year 2021 in June, Missouri recorded more than $2.4 billion in cash. Compared to last November, sales tax revenues were up 22% last month, according to the Office of Administration.

According to Missouri’s Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and the Department of Corrections’ website, there are nearly 300 job openings combined.

A spokesperson for the state’s corrections department said in a statement Tuesday:

This new recommendation, if approved, would mean a Correctional Officer I starting salary increase of more than 30% since 2017. Earlier this year, Governor Parson recommended and the Missouri General Assembly approved pay increases for certain classes of corrections employees — food service workers, corrections officers, sergeants, and lieutenants — ranging from 5.8% to 15%; these increases went into effect July 1, 2021, and sparked an improvement in recruitment and retention. We’re optimistic that an additional raise will keep us moving in the right direction.

Both the cost-of-living increase and the $15-per-hour base salary are real game-changers. We’ve heard from clerical and office support staff who say this announcement affirms their commitment to the department and cements their decision to build their careers here. We also have heard from staff who say they might be able to stop working second or third jobs and spend time with their families. The pay increase not only boosts our ability to recruit and retain staff, thus making our facilities and our communities safer, but also improves the quality of life for Missourians doing difficult jobs on the front lines.

MoDOT is warning drivers to be patient this winter because the department is short employees to clear roads. Director of MoDOT Patrick McKenna said in an interview last month, the department needs 200 to 300 seasonal workers for the winter months, but they are nowhere near that.

“The directors are coming to them begging, saying we have to do this,” Merideth said “Here we are as a state spending money, training workers just to have them then leave a month later to go get more money in the private sector. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

In addition to the governor’s proposal, state workers will receive a 2% pay increase in January. If lawmakers pass Parson’s recommendation by the end of next month, employees could see the increase as soon as February.

Parson’s office said the pay raise is expected to cost the state $91 million next year and more than $215 million in 2023.