Beshear raises pay of about 800 state workers to $10.10 an hour

June 08, 2015 | | Comments 0

Gov. Steve Beshear

Gov. Steve Beshear

By Jack Brammer

Gov. Steve Beshear is raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for hundreds of the lowest-paid workers in Kentucky’s executive branch of government, a move cheered by his Democratic supporters and ridiculed as an abuse of power by key Republican lawmakers.

Beshear, who will leave office in December, ceremonially signed an executive order Monday afternoon at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington to raise the pay of nearly 800 state workers starting July 1. The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Tipped employees — such as those who work in state park restaurants — will see their wages more than doubled to $4.90 an hour.

The wage increases will cost about $1.6 million, and less than $800,000 of that cost will come from the General Fund, Beshear said. Other sources of money, he said, include federal dollars, the state Road Fund and various state agency accounts.

Hundreds of state government workers care for veterans in nursing homes, maintain parks and help adults with mental disabilities for about $15,000 a year, the governor said.

“That’s a disgrace,” Beshear said. “Raising their pay is a moral imperative.”

The Democratic governor also challenged employers in the private and public sectors to follow the lead of the state’s largest employer, and he contended that common arguments against raising the wage don’t hold up to scrutiny.

“I call on every business leader and local government to take a hard look at the facts,” Beshear said. “Paying our people a living wage isn’t a fiscal backbreaker, and the impacts will be extraordinarily beneficial.”

State lawmakers have debated in recent years whether to raise the minimum wage, with House Democrats pushing the idea and Senate Republicans blocking the measure.

The General Assembly can review Beshear’s order when legislators return to session in early January, but it would be difficult for them to lower state workers’ wages. The next governor also could roll back Beshear’s order, but Beshear said Monday he doubts that will happen.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, accused Beshear of taking “a page out of the Obama administration’s playbook by forcing through failed legislation by executive action.”

“It seems Gov. Beshear apparently now understands he doesn’t have to pass another budget and feels comfortable in adding to the strain on Kentucky’s finances,” Hoover said.

Hoover said Beshear’s decision to expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act, combined with a growing unfunded liability in the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, “will increase the budgetary structural imbalance in excess of $250 million, which the General Assembly will have to address immediately.”

“Today’s action will have repercussions long after Gov. Beshear has left office,” he said.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he hopes Beshear’s action “does not cause any future-year fiscal problems.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he would support raising the minimum wage for legislative branch employees and hopes the Senate will approve his proposal to increase the minimum wage statewide next year.

Leigh Anne Hiatt said the judicial branch’s lowest-paid, full-time position begins at $11.53 per hour and increases to $12.10 an hour after the employee completes probation.

The change will affect 510 state workers in the executive branch who earn less than $10 an hour. An additional 269 who earn about $10 an hour will see a small raise. Tipped employees will see an increase in their base hourly income from $2.19 an hour to $4.90 an hour, matching recent federal changes.

The new policy also requires private companies that have service contracts with state government to pay a minimum wage of at least $10.10 an hour to employees who perform work in connection with those government contracts. That requirement will be added to contracts as they come up for renewal.

Of the 510 employees who make less than $10 an hour, more than a third work for the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, many of them caring for Kentucky veterans in the state’s veterans nursing homes. Another 90 people work in behavioral health agencies, taking care of vulnerable Kentuckians. Other large groups of low-paid employees work at state parks and at the Department of Natural Resources.

“The irony here — and it’s an appalling irony — is that the people we have tasked with the difficult job of caring for our vulnerable populations are paid so little that they too are vulnerable, at least when it comes to financial security,” Beshear said.

Beshear said a raise of less than $3 an hour might be enough for some employees to move off government assistance programs. For example, a single person with no dependents working full-time at $10.10 an hour would no longer be eligible for food stamps or Medicaid.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services estimated that a statewide increase in the minimum wage would move 13,000 Kentuckians off Medicaid.

Beshear was pressed at his Lexington news conference about the timing of his policy change, given that his two four-year terms in office are concluding in a few months.

This year also is an election year for all state constitutional offices, including attorney general. His son, Democrat Andy Beshear, a Louisville attorney, is running for that office against state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican.

Beshear, who held a similar news conference later Monday in Louisville, said Kentucky is coming out of a recession and the economy is improving.

“It’s time to share,” he said, noting that polling has consistently shown that a majority of Kentuckians favor raising the minimum wage.

Raising state government’s minimum wage would also help reduce turnover in low-paying jobs, cutting the costs of training, increasing productivity and reducing inefficiency, Beshear argued.

“As the economy accelerates, the job market grows more competitive,” Beshear said. “These critical state agencies need qualified workers to deliver services to our citizens.”

Filed Under: State Government

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