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Updated: Wednesday, 19 Dec 2012, 5:59 PM CST
Published : Wednesday, 19 Dec 2012, 6:34 AM CST
Despite the fact that tens of thousands of people are out of work and the economy is still struggling, the state of Wisconsin is paying big bonuses and merit raises to some employees.
Two detectives at UW-Madison each received a $6,922.24 bonus. A manager with the state Department of Justice was given a merit raise worth $7,105.28 a year. A director at the Department of Public Instruction received a merit raise worth $10,657.92 a year.
These are just some of the hundreds of state workers from more than 30 agencies who received a bonus or a merit raise in 2012.
How many bonuses and merit raises is the state handing out? In the last year 1,822 state employees have received either a bonus or a merit raise. Total cost to taxpayers: $6,042,921.08.
UW-Madison handed out 951 raises and bonuses this year, that's more than all other state agencies combined. Bob Lavigna is the human resources director for UW.
When asked if he could explain the payments to the detectives, Lavigna replied, "We've given out a thousand of these so without looking at the individual nominations, no I can't. But since it's based on the salary, there is going to be variability based on how much that individual employee earns."
In a follow up email, the university said the detectives are both long term employees who paid are "...nearly $13,000 below the average..." for a detective in Dane County. The email went on to say "...these are not average police detectives. They are the best we have."
Based on their hourly wage of $30 an hour, the detectives' bonuses are about 11% of their annual pay.
The bonuses and merit raises at UW are only for the employees who are covered by civil service rules. Lavigna says about 28% of those workers received a bonus or merit raise. He defends the program saying the university needs to be able to reward and keep good employees at all levels.
"These are people whose work enables the university to do research and to do teaching," Lavigna said. "It would be an awful mistake to overlook the contributions of these people."
When asked what he would say to people who believe they should just be happy to have a job, Lavigna replied, "I reject that statement. These are people who are critically important. In many cases, they don't earn a lot of money compared to people in some other occupations. They work very hard. They're committed to the university."
Cindy Schultz is the office manager for the Journalism Department at UW-Oshkosh. In July, the 28-year employee, who makes about $38,236.64 a year, received a $1,919 bonus.
Like many in state government, Schultz has gone without a raise for several years and now has to pay more for her benefits.
"We are not the haves versus the have-nots," Schultz said. "We truly work hard. We do the best we can with what we've been given. We've done more with less."
"We're just trying to do what we can to recognize and reward a group of employees who've done a phenomenal job," said Richard Wells, the chancellor of UW-Oshkosh.
This year, UW-Oshkosh handed out 124 merit raises and bonuses to employees like custodians, office workers, police, power plant operators and more.
"Those people are very important and the work they do in a university community is highly-valued, sometimes not recognized, but highly-valued," Wells said.
It's not just universities handing out bonuses and merit raises.
The Department of Justice handed out 101 bonuses and merit raises. The biggest: A merit raise worth $7,105.28 a year for an administrative manager. The raise brought his salary up to $86,796.40. Through a spokesperson, Attorney General J.B. Hollen declined to sit down for an interview for this story.
No one from the Department of Public Instruction would talk with us either. That agency awarded 36 bonuses and merit raises. One director received a merit raise worth $10,657.92 a year, bringing his salary to $91,289.12. A spokesman said the agency "experienced higher than normal turnover over the past two years" and the bonuses and merit raises were "for pay equity issues."
Why are some employees given a lump sum bonus and others a raise? It's all based on the state's compensation plan. Employees who are paid by the hour are only eligible for lump sum payments, which are basically a one-time bonus. Workers who are paid a salary can get either a bonus or a merit raise.
Not everyone likes the idea.
"Getting a lump sum is like getting a turkey at Christmas time. They get $500 and it goes away," said Marty Beil, the executive director of the State Employees Union. His position on bonuses and merit raises is what you might expect from a union leader.
"Why should that groundskeeper get it? What's different between that groundskeeper and this groundskeeper if they're
working in the same crew?" he said.
Beil says he would support the idea of merit pay but only if there were more protections for workers.
"Well, the question is, are the top performers actually getting it? And my answer is, I don't think they are," Beil said.
When asked how he knows that, Beil replied, "Well, if you look at the lists, I get the lists like you get the lists. We run the lists against our local unions and we ask the question: What did this person do to warrant a merit? And I don't know that those are the best performers who are getting those merits."
Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin), who has pushed the merit pay and bonus program, says it beats the alternative.
"The old system, that those folks are complaining want, is where everybody got the same. They say that they're for merit but then if you look at the past record, they want everybody to get the same," Walker said.
When asked if why this is the time to hand out bonuses and merit raises, Walker replied, "Because we promised it. We made that promise over the past two years when we made the changes to balance the budget."
"Instead of putting the burden on taxpayers," Walker continued. "We took a significant portion of that burden and I and all of the other public employees in the state paid more for health care, paid more for pension. In return, we were going to change the system so that merit and performance drove both hiring and wages, that we weren't going to pay everybody the same. That ultimately, if people did an exceptional job of providing service for the taxpayers, we were going to give them some rewards for that."
While some state workers are receiving merit raises and bonuses, the vast majority are not. In fact, many state workers are taking home less money than in the past because of the higher contributions for pension and health care.