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Legislative raises hit WCU paychecks

The fiscal year that ended July 30 saw unprecedented numbers of employees leaving for other jobs. WCU graphic The fiscal year that ended July 30 saw unprecedented numbers of employees leaving for other jobs. WCU graphic

Faculty and staff at Western Carolina University have been seeing higher paychecks since July following the N.C. General Assembly’s passage of a budget that includes an across-the-board raise of 3.5%. Coupled with the 2.5% raise included in the previous budget enacted Nov. 18, 2021, that’s a 6% increase in less than a year.

“This marks the largest legislative increase we’ve seen in faculty and staff pay in the past two decades,” Chancellor Kelli Brown said at the Sept. 2 Board of Trustees meeting. 

It’s a big step forward in the right direction — but it’s not enough to fix the problem. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator, inflation soared 8% between August 2021 and 2022, and anyone who has tried to buy or rent in Cullowhee lately knows that housing has become increasingly unaffordable. 

“I am committed to continuing to advocate for additional resources to make headway against the inflationary pressures that continue to impact our workforce,” Brown said. 

Not only do the recent legislative raises fall short of fully answering current inflationary pressures, they do nothing to address the declining buying power of a WCU salary that had been building  for a decade prior to the pandemic. Between 2010 and 2019, inflation-adjusted salaries at WCU reached below negative 8%, according to a 2021 analysis by WCU business professor Sean Mulholland. 

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However, Vice Chancellor for Human Resources and Payroll Corey Causby said during a Sept. 1 Academic Affairs and Personnel Committee meeting, WCU is doing all it can to maximize gains to its employees. The university was the only UNC institution that processed the most recent raises in time to include them in the July paycheck, with staff working weekends to make it happen. And in addition to the 6% raise from the state budget, WCU has spent $2.1 million to address salaries, retention and pay compression for its faculty and staff. 

The legislature has also allocated another 1% increase in state-appropriated salary funding — about $780,000 — as a labor market adjustment reserve to further address those issues. 

“I’m currently working with our leadership and executive council to identify exactly how to use that most effectively to touch the most people and address the most critical issues, and we’re hoping to implement that this fall,” Causby said. “It will be probably October at this point.”

Higher salaries have been a perennial request from WCU employees for years now, but data indicate that failing to meet the need could have dire consequences for the university’s workforce. Over the past year, the university has seen faculty and staff leaving their posts at staggering rates. 

Between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, WCU recorded 202 voluntary turnovers, the term used when an employee leaves because they want to, not because they’ve been fired or reached retirement. That’s more than double the previous four-year average of 100.5 voluntary turnovers, and way beyond the high point of 117 during that time. Other UNC schools have seen similar trends.  

“There’s no other way to look at that other than to say that the numbers are significant and something we’ll have to continue to watch closely,” Causby said. 

WCU’s annual employee satisfaction survey continually returns stellar results, Causby said. The most recent survey put WCU toward the top of the UNC system in employee satisfaction, with the score increasing from 2020. In exit interviews more than 75% of departing employees say salary issues influenced their decision to leave, Causby said. 

“What the Great Resignation has done at the macro level is it’s created a tremendous amount of opportunity to move throughout higher education that normally doesn’t exist and in some fields doesn’t exist at all,” said Provost Richard Starnes. “The number of faculty we’ve had who left in the past year who have gone on to R1 jobs is really staggering.”

However, the light at the end of the tunnel may be coming into view, Causby said. Turnover numbers for July and August came in closer to the normal prior to the 2021-22 fiscal year. 

“We’re hopeful that trend will continue,” he said. 

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