South Dakota State Employee Organization Director on state workers: ‘They need more care’

KELOLAND.com Original
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The state of South Dakota ended fiscal year 2021 with a budget surplus of $85.9 million, a record amount which has been placed in to the state’s general revenue reserve fund. Between this fund and the state’s budget reserve fund, South Dakota has a combined budget reserve of $301.8 million.

While this looks great for the state, the Executive Director of the South Dakota State Employees Organization (SDSEO), Eric Ollila says this reserve fund is not being properly utilized. “The funds aren’t doing anything — they’re dusty,” he says. Ollila argues those funds, rather than being held back, should be used to benefit the employees of the state.

“Those funds are happy, but you know those funds aren’t people. They’re not employees; they’re not workers; they’re not the folks in penitentiaries or in the psychiatric institutions trying to help folks in need.”

Eric Ollila, SDSEO

The SDSEO, according to their website, was founded in 1972 for state employees, by state employees in order to protect and improve salaries, benefits, and working conditions for South Dakota state employees and retirees. “We represent all state employees,” says Ollila. “That is the call of the SDSEO and that’s what we do, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’ve been in business for 49 years — we’re going to go for another 49.”

According to Ollila, state employees are “hard-pressed” right now. “The South Dakota state employees are just under-compensated. Here’s an example,” he says. “Wildland firefighters, folks that go out and fight fires in the forest — they’re starting at what, $12/hour. The engine boss at wildland firefighters starts at a little over $13/hour — you need to have some severe dedication as a South Dakotan if you’re gonna go sign up for that for 12 bucks an hour.”

Ollila says what state employees really need is more support from legislators. “They need more care,” he says.

Separate from suppost, Ollila says many state employees struggle to even communicate with their legislators. “When state employees reach out to legislators, they’re most often disappointed,” he says. “State employees are very restricted in how they can communicate with elected politicians — since it’s illegal, and since the state agencies tell their employees that it’s illegal for them to contact legislators about state business, it puts a huge chill on state employees even reaching out to a legislator.”

Ollila says this chilling effect has not been helped by the actions of legislators themselves. “We’ve had state employees contact legislators in the past — but what of the horror stories,” he asks. “A few years ago a legislator tracked — he looked up names of employees who emailed him — they didn’t email him off their state employee emails, but off their personal email addresses — so then he went into OpenSD and found their names and then emailed their department heads.”

Ollila says this action prompted him to file an informal complaint with the Appropriations Chair about that member’s behavior in trying to silence state employees that he says had a right to contact him. Ollila says this isn’t the only instance of such behavior either.

“This last session we testified against Senate Bill 57 — and a lot of state employees reached out to legislators. Well during one of the committee hearings, one of the legislators took it upon himself to say out loud the names of the state employees that had contacted him. This never happens. Legislators never give up the names of their constituents — that stuff puts the chill on state employees reaching out and getting any satisfaction at all from their legislators.”

Eric Ollila, SDSEO

This fear of reprisal is part of what Ollila says keeps state employees from joining his organization. “These employees are afraid. They are worried about being part of an organization that supports them.” Ollila says the state of South Dakota employs roughly 13,000 full-time employees. The SDSEO, he says, has less than 1,000 members.

Ollila acknowledges that another barrier to entry at the SDSEO is the lack of awareness that it even exists. “Most definitely there’s a lack of awareness about the SDSEO,” he says. “I was a state employee for four years. I never heard of the SDSEO the entire time.”

“One of the problems,” says Ollila “is the state does not put our information in new-hire packets — employees have to find out about the SDSEO through word-of-mouth — show me a business that relies 100% on word-of-mouth and see how successful they are.”

One final reason people may not join is cost, says Ollila. “Our dues are $10 a month. That may not seem like a lot, but to a state employee who is making $12/hour, $10 a month — I mean that’s a lot. State employees on average are not getting rich,” he says “they’re just doing everything they can to survive.”

Even though some workers maybe be very unhappy with their jobs, Ollila says they might not see much of an alternative. “The employees become trapped, in essence”. Ollila says this is because they don’t want to give up their retirement benefits. “That’s their last real sustainable benefit that’s left,” he says. “The three legged stool of pay and healthcare and retirement has been chopped into a one legged stool of retirement.”

Speaking about what the state’s $301.8 million reserve could be used to improve, Ollila focused first on healthcare. “It would be nice for state employees for their healthcare package to be more well considered, and perhaps to be funded — their premium payments could easily be funded off of the surplus,” he says. “It would give employees immediate relief.”

Ollila says that funding state employees’ premiums would also highlight what he sees as a flaw in the current health plans. “If employees were given the option of the state paying their premiums, they’d all go to the highest [deductible] plan I’m guessing. That shows the state health plan as it is right now isn’t necessarily constructed for the individual employee as much as it’s constructed for the state to make money,” he says.

The current healthcare plan for state employees offers a four-tier system, each with different premiums and deductibles. KELOLAND News reached out to Governor Kristi Noem’s office to ask about criticisms that the new health plan has caused higher premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. Noem’s communications director Ian Fury responded, saying that the new state health plan offers four options, including a high deductible plan with zero employee premiums.

While high deductible health plans do have the benefit of low (or in this case no) monthly payments, the downside of such plans includes high out-of-pocket costs for serious injuries and illness. With a high deductible, the covered individual will have to pay a higher amount of the hospital bill before their insurance coverage will kick in. High deductible plans are often described as good options for young, healthy people who are at low risk of major injury or illness.

The other thing Ollila would like to see is higher wages. “We’ve asked a number of years now for a real concrete look at state employee pay — we haven’t got any traction. What we have seen the last couple years however is state agencies and the legislature itself taking advantage of their abilities to give themselves and their employees raises — the Governor’s appointees getting $15,000 yearly raises, $5,000 yearly raises — if they’re able to do that for them, they should be able to something for the career employees.”

When it comes to raises for state employees, Fury noted that state employees received salary policy increases of 2.4% for fiscal year 2022, which started in July. He also pointed to other new pay policies:

“In addition to salary policy, 1,713 employees were moved to a new minimum through $12 million in targeted pay increases. The range of movement annualizes to $1,118.34 to $5,982.12. 10,584 employees with over 1 year of service received additional pay as well, ranging from $230.00 to $2,400.00 on top of their increase in base pay.

Ian Fury, Communications Director

Ollila says that what’s needed to help state employees is a deeper look at the issues by the state legislature. “Frequently the legislators seem to look at state employees as being the governor’s business,” he says “but we consider legislators to be — along with the governor — the ultimate bosses of state employees.”

This is because the legislature are the ones who ultimately make the decisions on employees’ pay and benefits, says Ollila. “We need the legislators to understand that,” he says.

Ollila says that he’s optimistic about the legislature’s ability to do this though. “It seems they’re getting that. They’re asking more questions about state employees — they’re trying to put aside the myths and the rumors and misconceptions and they’re really trying to take a look at what’s going on.”

“I’m always optimistic regarding state employees — it’s more encouraging when you hear legislators from both parties asking good questions — trying to find the truth.”

Eric Ollila, SDSEO

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