JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Lawmakers are back at the Missouri Capitol for what will be their first full week of session, and starting off the discussion Monday was raising state employees’ wages to $15 an hour.

Missouri employs more than 50,000 workers who are among the lowest-paid state workers nationally. Gov. Mike Parson is asking legislators to give state workers a cost-of-living adjustment and most members on the House Budget committee seem to agree, but some want more to be done.

“I’m glad we’re talking about this, obviously this is probably a long-overdue situation that has been exasperated,” Rep. Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis) said.

Last month, Parson requested lawmakers to pass a 5.5% cost of living adjustment and a $15 an hour minimum wage for state employees.

We’re getting to the point where if we have more vacancies and more turnover, we’re not going to be able to operate our state facilities,” State Budget Director Dan Haug said. “Really, we’re just trying to meet the market on this pay increase so that we can get people in to provide the services that Missourians need and expect.”

Haug said in Fulton, the state operates a mental hospital, but the pay is better at the Dollar General distribution center where employees make $17 an hour.

“Unfortunately, on certain shifts, if somebody on the next shift isn’t there, we have minimum staffing requirements in our mental health institutions and our prisons and we’re having to force people to stay overtime on that next shift,” Onder said. “That’s not the way we want to run the state.”

If approved, the raise is expected to cost $91 million this year and more than $215 million in 2023. In addition to the governor’s proposal, state employees received a 2% pay increase in January.

Haugh said of the 51,000 positions, 3,000 of them are currently vacant.

“How do you think we will be able to maintain this pay raise throughout the years?,” Rep. Brenda Sheilds, R-St. Joseph, said.

“Missouri’s revenues are doing very well,” Haug responded. “I’m very confident that we can afford what we are doing now and what we are going to need to do in the future.”

Haug said told members of the House Budget committee Monday, across all state departments, the turnover is 26%. He said the industry standard is 10%.

“Turnover rate for people making under $30,000 at the state was 54%, almost 55%,” Haug said.

He said he’s heard from several department directors; employees are looking forward to the pay increase and considering staying at their job.

“We’re not trying to set the market, honestly, we’re not even trying to get the middle of the market,” Haug said “We’re just trying to get somewhere where we can be competitive and get people in and keep our good people.”

Over the summer, the governor vetoed $2.1 million that was supposed to go to increasing the salaries of workers in the Children’s Division under the Missouri Department of Social Services. In his veto letter, Parson said lawmakers should not single out one specific agency for a pay raise.

“In the past, we have tried to give specific pay increases to specific jobs and what happens is, you might fix the position there but end up with a bunch of state employees from somewhere else coming there and taking those jobs,” Haug told members.

Rep. Scott Cupps (R-Shell Knob) told Haug he supported the pay raise and was disappointed to see the governor’s veto. He went on to say, he’s concerned about supervisors getting the pay increase, but not the workers doing the “actual job.”

“We have to quit being fake about this,” Cupps said.

He wants the state to do more research to see if $15 is enough to compete with the labor market.

“Where did that number come from?” Cupps asked Haug. “Did you Google it? I mean really. I’m assuming you did. I’m assuming you just got on Google and saw all the people pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage and said oh that sounds good, let’s do it for the state.”

According to Missouri’s Department of Transportation (MoDOT) website, there are dozens of job openings. Before the start of winter, MoDOT warned drivers to be patient during winter weather because the department is short on employees to clear roads. The department’s director, Patrick McKenna, said in an interview last fall, MoDOT needs 200 to 300 seasonal workers for winter months, but they are nowhere near that.

“MoDOT has been here a lot talking about how hard it is, and workers can go across the street after they get trained by us and go work for UPS and make more money,” Merideth said.

The minimum wage for private employers in Missouri in 2022 is $11.15, up from $10.21 last year. Until 2023, the state’s minimum wage will increase by 85 cents.

If approved by both the House and the Senate by the end of the month, state employees could see a pay raise as soon as February.