by April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current
More than 14,500 state employees will receive up to 48 hours worth of back pay for furloughs they were forced to take last year.
Nevada’s Interim Finance Committee, which approves budget decisions when the full legislature is not in session, on Thursday approved $35 million in employee compensation. The funding is coming from the state’s share of American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Nevada State Legislature during a 2020 special session mandated that state employees be furloughed for six days in the first half of 2021 in order to help balance a budget wrecked by pandemic shutdowns.
Since then, the state’s budget has rebounded more quickly than expected.
A state human resources administrator said 14,851 state employees will receive the additional pay, which is expected to hit their paychecks in January. All state agencies, including those within the Nevada System of Higher Education, are included.
People who were furloughed but no longer work for the State of Nevada will not receive the furlough back pay, a decision Sisolak’s Chief of Staff Yvanna Cancela said was primarily based on logistics of having to track down and distribute money to former employees.
“There is a risk that some of these dollars could end up sitting in a fund waiting for people to claim them,” said Cancela, referring to the state’s unclaimed property fund. “That’s against American Rescue Plan rules.”
Cancela said there was also a “philosophical” reason for limiting it to active employees, though she said it mattered less than the logistical reasoning.
“We made the decision to pursue these dollars not just to thank people for their sacrifice but also in the hopes of retaining employees,” she said.
It was not immediately known how many individuals furloughed in 2021 have since retired or otherwise left the public sector.
No lawmaker publicly took issue with the exclusion of retirees or other former employees. But several retirees during public comment expressed disappointment.
Mindy McKay, a recent retiree, wrote that it felt like “yet another slap in the face.”
“I dedicated 25 years of my life to the state of Nevada,” she wrote. “During those years, I survived arguably two of the most challenging times in the state’s history. Unfortunately, both of those times included multiple furloughs, pay cuts, and dramatic benefit cuts to the permanent detriment of the employees.”
State agencies even prior to the pandemic were struggling with labor shortages, and Cancela said Thursday that vacancies are now at record-high levels. Lawmakers, administrators and employees have largely acknowledged it as the natural consequence of offering low wages and subpar benefits.
Staff shortages have led to strained public services across the state. In one of the most high profile examples, the Nevada Department of Corrections has closed more than one of its facilities and consolidated inmates because of staffing issues.
Calls to address public sector salaries and benefits have grown, especially since the official state revenue forecast for the upcoming fiscal biennium came in at $11.4 billion – more than $2 billion over the budget approved for the current fiscal biennium.
Kent Ervin of the Nevada Faculty Alliance contrasted spiking inflation with stagnant salaries, saying that since July 2019 most state employees have received a single cost-of-living increase of 1 to 3%, depending on whether they are part of a collective bargaining unit.
“State and NSHE salaries were already below competitive levels,” he said. “If we want the state government to provide essential services to the citizens of Nevada, we must be able to hire and retain public employees. If we want to be able to hire new state employees and stop the losses, the next budget must contain a truly significant pay increase of 15 to 20% along with restoration of health care benefits.”
Seanna Beisner, a state correctional officer for the past four years, told the committee during public comment that the last substantial pay raise received by correctional officers was in 2004: “Every cost-of-living raise since then has been met with higher insurance premiums and PERS contributions, which means almost no raise at all.”
On their end, lawmakers during Thursday’s meeting acknowledged there was more work to be done in the upcoming legislative session, which begins Feb. 6.
“We know we are really in trouble,” said Republican state Sen. Pete Goicochea. “We need to address salary and benefits going forward.”
Democratic Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager agreed: “This is a small step, but you cannot start a journey without the first step.”
Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.