State employees count on welfare

Mo. workers are paid some of the lowest salaries of all states.
Sunday, June 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:56 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Pamela Current spends her days at a state psychiatric hospital caring for young people with mental illness and teaching them skills to cope with daily life, from personal hygiene to cooking.

But when it comes to her own health care needs, and those of her two young children, she must rely on a government program for the poor, elderly and disabled to help cover the costs.

She is not alone. According to data compiled by the Missouri Department of Social Services, 2,045 state employees receive some kind of welfare benefits. That accounts for about 3 percent of nearly 62,000 full- and part-time state employees.

Of those, 1,291 were receiving food stamps and 1,276 were on the Medicaid health care program. Most of those receiving state aid were full-time employees.

The figures, updated March 31, were the latest available. They tally state employees receiving benefits, but do not include family members, so the number of government families receiving welfare may be even larger.

Current earns $8.45 an hour as a psychiatric aide at the Hawthorn Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in St. Louis, part of the state Mental Health Department. She and her two children — 6-month-old C’Mya White and 5-year-old Khyra Benson — are on Medicaid and receive food stamps. “It’s sad. I have to live from paycheck to paycheck, even with assistance from the state,” Current said.

More than 1 million Missourians — nearly 20 percent of the population — were receiving Medicaid, food stamps or other public assistance, according to Social Services Department data.

The greatest number of state employees on welfare work for the Mental Health Department, which labor unions and Democratic Gov. Bob Holden say have among the lowest-paid workers with the highest-stress jobs.

This year Holden proposed a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise, with extra pay of up to 10 percent for state employees in what he called low-paid, high-turnover jobs — people largely represented by unions that support the Democratic governor.

Holden said Missouri workers are paid among the lowest salaries in the nation. Census data shows state workers rank 49th in average pay.

The average salary for full-time state employees is $31,252, the Office of Administration said. Overall, 4,030 state workers earn less than $18,850 — the federal poverty level for a family of four this year — though their family size is not tracked.

Legislators approved a $1,200 pay raise for most state workers this year, and larger increases for members of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, but not extra money for about 16,000 employees in “high-stress” jobs as Holden wanted.

House Budget Committee Chairman Carl Bearden said the way state jobs are classified will be reviewed to ensure the system is fair. Classifications determine pay levels.

A spokesman for the federal Office of Personnel Management said it does not track the number of federal employees receiving welfare. Several national think tanks and policy groups said they expect Missouri is not alone in having state workers on welfare.

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