In a state lush with trees, Michigan foresters make a lot of green. Here, state-employed foresters earn an average $58,401. In Minnesota, they earn $34,264.
Likewise, state-employed transportation engineers in Michigan earn more than in most other states. In Michigan, they make an average wage of $66,252; in neighboring Ohio, it's $46,821.
State-employed office assistants earn higher-than-average pay, too. In Michigan, the average salary is $38,440 - nearly double the $19,074 paid for a similar job in Mississippi.
These wage comparisons - included in the 2012 American Federation of Teachers Public Employees State Employee Compensation Survey - showed Michigan state employees earned above the national average in most job categories, even though U.S. census data shows workers in Michigan, as a whole, earned below the national average between 2007 and 2011.
The AFT survey - which state union officials say is misleading - ranks the salary of 14,000 Michigan state workers in about 45 job categories, representing about a third of all state workers. It showed state workers in Michigan gained significant ground in salaries when compared to other states' workers since 2008. That year, Michigan ranked squarely in the middle of the pack nationwide.
It's not clear why Michigan employees made the relative gains since 2008. Since then, most state employees in Michigan have received base pay raises totaling 5 percent, but the study does not address raises given to state employees across the country in recent years.
State and union officials say "competitive" salaries help the state in its recruitment efforts, and union officials say state workers have sacrificed in other areas, such as furloughs and increases in benefit costs. Last year, state employees agreed to double their health premiums to 20 percent.
"We do understand that Michigan wages and benefits are competitive, which is important in order to attract talent," said Kurt Weiss, spokesman for the Office of the State Employer. "The (Snyder) administration places a high value on the bargaining process, and we are pleased that the state and the coalition of unions representing state employees have worked together to control costs."
Such salary and health benefit data may have an impact on contract negotiations with state employee unions expected to begin this summer. State officials aren't expected to seek major concessions in health care benefits because employees took a large hit last year, and union officials are declining to say whether they will push for raises. Unionized state employees - about 34,300 of the state workforce of 48,500 - received a 1 percent base pay raise and a 1 percent lump sum increase for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, and they will receive a 1 percent lump sum increase the following fiscal year.
"I would hope they have a conversation about this," James Hohman, assistant director of fiscal policy with the Mackinac Center, said of the salary and health benefit data. "This is primarily why state government costs more every year."
Health care benefits
It's unclear how Michigan now ranks in health care benefits for state employees, given the changes in health care premiums that went into effect Oct. 1, 2012. Earlier that year, state employees - based on the 10 percent health care premium - paid the sixth-lowest health premiums among state employees nationwide for standard family plan coverage, according to a report compiled in July 2012 by the Washington D.C.-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
State employees used to pay $152 monthly toward a standard family plan costing $1,523. Now - since the 20 percent health care premium was implemented - they would pay $304 for the same plan. The increased premiums likely put employees closer to the middle of the pack among state employees nationwide. The conference is expected to update the state rankings later this year.
The higher premiums also put those workers closer to the private-sector average in Michigan. Private-sector employees paid an average 21 percent toward health care costs, according to a 2011 report by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning Michigan think tank.
Most wages above U.S. average
Data from the compensation survey and the National Conference of State Legislatures' benefits report paint the following picture for Michigan state workers:
• Of the Michigan jobs studied, all but five ranked above the national average in pay. The low-ranking jobs included: economic analyst, earning $48,066 annually, or 18 percent below the national average; forensic scientist, earning $50,342, or 13 percent below the national average; information tech analyst, earning $59,926, or 7 percent below the national average; and architect, earning $64,791, or 4 percent below the national average.
• Michigan employees in 16 job categories received salaries more than 10 percent higher than the national average. Those highest-ranking jobs included: agricultural scientist, earning $58,568, or 28 percent higher than the national average; civil engineer-transportation, earning $66,252, or 22 percent above the national average; and office assistant, earning $38,440, or 22 percent above the national average.
• Since 2008, Michigan workers appeared to be gaining significant ground in salaries when compared with workers in other states. In the AFT's 2008 survey, 21 of 42 Michigan positions ranked in the lowest 50 percent when compared with the same positions in other states - compared to six positions in 2012.
• In the first half of 2012, Michigan state employees paid a $152 monthly premium toward a standard family health plan - the sixth-lowest such premium among state workers nationwide when computed as a percentage of a health plan's total cost. That premium has since doubled, but it's unclear how premiums have changed in other states and where Michigan ranks today. Based on the 2012 survey, state workers in North Dakota and Oklahoma paid zero toward a similar health plan, and Mississippi state workers paid the highest premium of $685, or two-thirds of the entire plan cost.
• Michigan was closer to the national average among those state employees who paid for a standard individual policy. They paid a $55 monthly premium for a policy costing a total of $552 - the 19th-lowest premium paid for that policy among state workers nationwide.
• Michigan ranked far below the national average in a few job categories, including economic analyst. In Michigan, for instance, a junior-level economic analyst earned $48,066 annually, while a similar position in California paid $64,613. Forensic scientists in Michigan earned $50,342 annually, compared to $72,153 in Connecticut.
Click image to see state health plan costs
Private wages not considered
Maria Enriquez, for one, takes offense at any notion that state workers, by and large, make too much money. A Medicaid claims processor for the Michigan Department of Community Health, she earns an annual salary in the mid-$40,000 range.
"I've worked here 20 years, and my salary has not changed very much," she said. "It's been hard to keep up with the cost of living. The cost of living is high in Lansing."
State employee union officials contend the AFT salary survey is misleadingbecause it doesn't account for the higher salaries paid for comparable positions in Michigan's private sector.
Phil Patrick, executive vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 517M, which represents about 4,000 state employees, referred to a 2009 study by Michigan State University economics professor Charles Ballard that showed private sector salaries were higher than those in similar state jobs. Ballard's survey showed state employees with bachelor's degrees earned about 72 cents for every dollar earned by a private sector worker with a bachelor's degree.
Cost of living could be a factor
Patrick added the AFT study also doesn't take into account the high cost of living in Michigan, saying state residents pay among the highest gas taxes in the nation and have higher housing costs than many more rural states.
"That is simply not true," the Mackinac Center's Hohman said. "According to the cost of living index, Michigan is below average. And certainly the cost of housing is not high in Michigan" compared to other states.
Last year, Michigan had the 19th-lowest cost of living nationwide, according to a study by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, a state agency. Oklahoma had the lowest cost of living. Hawaii had the highest.
Patrick added state overtime costs - and thus employee salaries - increased in recent years because of economic turmoil. The recession, he said, led to higher unemployment and welfare caseloads in the state, forcing many state employees to work longer hours.
But Hohman said one reason Michigan salaries rank higher is that most newer employees see rapid increases in their pay, regardless of raises awarded to the overall workforce.
"Most salaries ranges have a five-year salary schedule," he said. "You can go from low to high in five years."
Ken Moore, president of the Michigan State Employees Association, which represents about 4,500 state employees, argued some state salaries may appear inflated, compared to other states, because Michigan became the first state in the nation in 1997 to place all new hires into a 401(k)-style retirement plan, rather than the higher-cost traditional pension plans still used in many states.
After this retirement plan change, Moore said, the state faced pressure to compensate state workers in other ways, including paying higher salaries than seen in some other states.
MI ave. salary
Natl. ave. salary
Higher/ lower than Natl. ave.
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