As Texas recovers, let’s prioritize the state employees who have prioritized us

by Ann Bishop, Executive Director | March 4, 2021

With the 87th Texas Legislative session underway, those of us advocating for the approximately 146,000 state employees were—like other groups—looking for a way to make the case for funding their needs. Then a winter storm brought brutally low temperatures, shaking our power grid and cutting off water for many.

You may have heard about it.

Remarkably but unsurprisingly, our state employees who deliver the vital basic services necessary to keep the state up and running put their personal lives on hold to help the people of Texas. They showed up despite their own families being without power or water at home, then came to work and were presented with the same obstacles.

These are career public servants in agencies including law enforcement, criminal justice, health and human services,  transportation, and water—which state employees ensure is safe to drink. They quite literally kept Texas working, safe and with access to the services they needed to stay alive. Just one example is the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners (TSPBE), which swung into action over this past weekend. It identified an additional 500 licensees capable of performing plumbing to increase the availability of plumbers and Plumber's Apprentices to repair burst pipes as the state recovers from the winter storm.

Of what may seem like a perfunctory office function, Governor Greg Abbott, who partnered with TSPBE to make this possible, said, "We will continue to cut red tape and ensure that Texans have access to the resources they need to quickly repair their homes and put our state on a path to recovery."

These faithful and humble state workers showed up last week like they show up every week to prioritize all Texans. But if something doesn’t change, their benefits will burst then dry up like frozen water in the pipes.

Unless we change course—in collaboration with our commited legislators—Texas will be on a collision course with an economic certainty: the depletion of the funds that support state workers’ benefits. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that these benefits are what attract many to becoming a state employee and good benefits are what keep these workers with us. Turnover for employees with fewer than five years of state service is 65% of the total turnover rate for the state.  In other words, younger people and new hires are not staying and that costs us all. What’s more, there has not been an across the board pay raise since 2015.

Substantially underfunded by 33% despite a steady increase of the population of Texas and state workers’ contributions, the Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS) Retirement Trust does not have the proper funding to sustain and grow as intended. It is projected to run out of funds by the time 53% of these employees reach retirement age.

This should alarm every Texan and certainly any public servant.

Over the past year and certainly the past week, we have all seen how essential state employees are to keeping our state running and ensuring the economy can come back stronger than ever. Simply put, without their faithful service, Texas would come to a grinding halt. And replacing them will become increasingly difficult.

Despite the dizzying population growth in the state over the past 25 years, the number of state employees has remained the same since 1993. We’re effectively asking for more but offering less and less.

But as is always the case in Texas, we can fix this if we work together.

On behalf of the active state employee and retiree members of the Texas Public Employees Association (TPEA), we urge you to contact your elected officials at the Capital and ask that they fund ERS’ budget request. Once we establish a plan to return funding to a sustainable level so that our public employment sector is appealing for the incoming workforce, we can then collaborate on other key issues such as salaries and robust benefits.

This harrowing week has taught us a lot about what we’re made of—including our fine state employees. The legislature, just like regular citizens, expects and deserves the best from its workforce in order to effectively carry out the legislation they pass. But if we do not take action, we will continue to lose our best and brightest lab analysts, nurses, highway architects, planners, specialists and so on. Think of the consequences for our great state not only during a big storm, but any day! You want the best, you deserve the best and you want service to be quick, efficient and secure. The only way to ensure that is to make state employees a priority the way they have made us theirs.

Join me in contacting your elected officials today in support of our devoted state employees.

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