RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- North Carolina House Republicans released a budget plan on Wednesday that proposes a 7.5% raise for all state employees over the next two years, with 4.25% in the first year and 3.25% the second year.
"When legislators write a budget that doesn't keep up with inflation and assigns state employees a lower level of importance than other public servants, they are calling us expendable," the State Employees Association of North Carolina said. "State employees either matter or they don't. The General Assembly will have to do much better than this to convince employees that they care about the understaffing crisis plaguing state government."
The budget plan comes as nearly a quarter of the state government jobs are vacant, with departments such as the Health and Human Services and Agriculture and Consumer Services facing the highest vacancy rates.
"Our vacancy rate is currently 17 percent, 9 percent of our employees could retire with full benefits right now, 11.5 percent can retire within the next year and 25 percent of our employees will be eligible for full retirement in five years or less," Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said. "We need to invest in employees now to ensure we can continue to provide the services we all expect and need."
Dr. James Trybus, who works at the state veterinary lab in Raleigh, said they have 15 vacancies, which leaves his team struggling to keep up with the demand in the agriculture industry.
"They're coming in early, they're staying late, they're working weekends," Trybus said. "When we have an animal disease event, that's an all-consuming event."
Trybus said they had to temporarily suspend a lab in Elkin, which is located in the Triad area, due to having no staff. It's a major loss to the poultry-dense area that's at risk of infectious diseases, like the bird-flu outbreak.
"The sooner that we can identify an infectious disease that allows it to be contained, then hopefully limit the spread," Trybus said. "So the loss of that laboratory being able to offer those services at that laboratory, there is some concern about the delay and diagnosis of the disease."
The strain that staffing shortages have on the department is widespread.
"The Department of Health and Human Services has a 28% vacancy rate," Secretary Kody Kinsley said. "We're running a relay race and every 4th person isn't there to catch the baton."
Kinsley said this inhibits their ability to provide critical service to North Carolina, which includes testing well water and performing autopsies.
"It is compensation," Kinsley said. "We're in a place and a time when people can make considerable wages in a lot of entry-level jobs that we don't begin to compete with the current salary."
SEANC executive director Ardis Watkins echoed Kinsley.
"State employees don't get paid enough, it's really as simple as that," Watkins said. "37% of new hires leave the state in the first year of employment. That's why it's a crisis."
Watkins said the state has the money to significantly increase the pay, but it's a matter of priorities.
"We could increase benefits, which is also a money issue, and I think that would probably get some people to stay," Watkins said. "But we're in a job market where the state has to face the fact we (are) an employer and so to keep employees, you have to do something that resonates with them and right now, if they can go down the street and make a time and a half their salary, they're going to leave."
The budget bill could still change before it ends up on Governor Roy Cooper's desk, who had called for an 8% raise for state employees and recently signed an executive order that aims to recruit more people without an academic degree for state jobs.
"Vacancies in state government make it challenging to offer the critical public services needed by North Carolinians and more action must be taken to make sure North Carolina can continue to compete for public service talent," the Office of Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement.