It can't be more than 50 degrees out here, but there's sweat on Johnny Askins' bald head as he—literally—moves rocks.
On this Monday morning, the 48-year-old N.C. Department of Transportation worker, clad in the familiar orange vest over dirt-caked civvies, tosses dozens of chicken-sized boulders from a hauling truck to another crew member. The rocks are used as riprap, or erosion control, at this roadside culvert off Glenoaks Drive in north Durham.
Askins, a 17-year DOT employee, works 42-hour weeks but can't stretch his $36,000 in annual pay to meet mounting medical bills and mortgage payments. His wife, a full-time worker at Durham Regional Hospital, earns just under $40,000 each year.
"They say not to live above your means," Askins says. "But I can't live above my means if you're not paying me my means."
Askins' means—and those of 88,837 other state workers in North Carolina—could change, pending a study into state workers' compensation requested by lawmakers. In December, the nine-member Legislative Services Commission, which is composed almost entirely of Republicans, was tasked to launch the study, with a final report originally due in late February.
The commission includes powerful GOP leaders such as House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, as well as Wake County Republican Nelson Dollar, who did not return INDY Week phone calls. Sen. Martin Nesbitt Jr. of Buncombe County is the commission's lone Democrat.
As of Tuesday, lawmakers have yet to award a contract for the study, but some state workers and their advocates are worried what Republicans could devise when the General Assembly reconvenes this week.
"It is hard to know what they will do," says Dante Strobino, an organizer for the N.C. Public Service Workers Union, also known as UE Local 150. "In typical Republican fashion, they could fast-track the study and give us even less time for worker and public input. Or they could just scrap it altogether and make whatever cuts they want based purely on ideological arguments."
It's possible unions won't have much say, anyway. UE Local 150 includes about 3,000 members, or little more than 3 percent of state workers. The larger State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) counts about 55,000 members, but North Carolina—one of just two states to ban any collective bargaining for public workers—is considered one of the least union-friendly states in the nation.
SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope considers the looming study a relatively minor matter, emphasizing tax reforms and a legislative push for privatization as more pressing concerns for state workers.
"I wish we had the luxury to focus on a simple compensation study about longevity pay," Cope says.
With or without UE Local 150 or SEANC, some workers' advocates say they fear legislators will rewrite health care and retirement benefits and propose a state constitutional ban on collective bargaining.
Republicans also could eliminate longevity pay for workers, shifting instead to "merit"-based pay increases that encourage favoritism and racism in pay raises, according to Strobino.
Cope backs both longevity and merit pay, noting lawmakers approved merit pay in the 1990s but have never fully funded the program.
He said those incentives could be key to avoid a "brain drain" if a resurgent private sector draws top workers from state agencies. "We have to invest in our best and brightest in state government to provide basic quality," Cope says.
If the worst fears come true for state workers, it would be another bad break for employees who, like many during the recession, have seen their disposable income shrink.
According to a May 2012 report from the N.C. Office of State Personnel, compensation raises and cost-of-living adjustments had been stalled since 2008. Legislators included a 1.2 percent pay raise in last year's budget bill, although the raise fell short of the 2 percent increase union workers requested.
The report notes annual salary increases for state workers lagged behind the private sector in eight of the last 10 years. Meanwhile, state worker pay had increased just 6.75 percent in the last five years, even as the consumer price index—a cost-of-living measure—had risen by more than 11 percent.
The median state agency worker's compensation, not including benefits, is $42,337. It's $42,227 at the university level. Regional comparisons were not available, although the report noted state workers' salary and wages typically do not account for as large a portion of total compensation as seen nationally, while paid time off and retirement benefits generally outpace the national average.
Among its broad recommendations, the state personnel office report called for the state to base future cost-of-living adjustments on the consumer price index, expand compensation bonuses, boost employer contributions to the state health plan and eliminate previously ordered restrictions on market-based salary increases. The report said the last of those provisions has begun to "seriously hamper" recruiting and retention efforts in state agencies and universities.
Angaza Laughinghouse, statewide president of UE Local 150, says state workers must have a voice in the process. His union has lobbied for public hearings before lawmakers introduce changes.
"The best advocates for workers will be organizations such as ours," Laughinghouse says. "The slaves could not count on just the good will of their plantation masters. Very similarly, we cannot count on our government legislators to look out for the well-being of our workers."
Without collective bargaining rights, unions such as UE Local 150 largely depend on public opinion and media attention to sway lawmakers, he says, although he acknowledges unions faced a tough battle in North Carolina even before Republicans seized control of state government.
"If we don't put up our fists and fight, we'll win nothing," he says. "My point of view has always been you can't win if you're not in the fight."
Meanwhile, Askins, who is at least a decade away from retirement eligibility, doesn't want to fight. He just wants enough pay to take care of the bills and afford a doctor's visit. Cuts to his pay or benefits could be devastating.
"That'd be a pretty tough pill to swallow," he says. "I don't know about our leaders. If they're leading us, where are they leading us to?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fearing the worst."