Stipend threat worries workers
Letter says state housing allowance in expensive counties set to end for commuters.
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
May 23, 2012
Lara Gertsch has worked as a biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for more than a decade. She lives in Alpine, where she could afford to buy enough acreage to keep the horses that she needs to do her job.
As a state employee working in Teton County, Gertsch receives a monthly housing allowance that is supposed to help her with the high cost of living in Jackson. She is one of more than two dozen state employees who commute to jobs in Teton County and who receive a housing stipend for working here.
She also is one of the state employees worried about the future of that monthly payment and whether she will be able to continue working in the valley.
On Tuesday, members of the state Employee Compensation Commission will convene in Cheyenne to set the amount of the state’s monthly housing payment and review the policy that controls who receives the stipend. While state officials have not yet said whether they plan to stop paying housing stipends to commuters, some state employees in Teton County are worried that their monthly payments — currently set at $786 per month — are on the chopping block.
“If they tamper with it or mess with new formulas, I think it’s going to hurt a lot of people,” said Chuck Rhea, a vocational rehabilitation counselor who works at the Jackson Workforce Center. “Even talking about it could create a morale problem.”
Rhea estimates that there are about 85 state employees who work in Teton County. About a third of those employees live outside Teton County, he said.
State human resource staff, however, say that residents who commute to their jobs shouldn’t receive a monthly housing stipend unless they had their job while old rules were in place.
They said the policy changed several years ago, allowing employees already in the program to continue receiving the allowance. The change also prevented new hires from receiving a stipend if they did not reside in the eligible county.
“Mostly likely it will not change,” said Dean Fausset, Administration and Information Human Resources Division administrator. “The commission does review the policy, but it has been the policy for a number of years.”
What triggered state employees’ worries and created confusion is a letter they received last year. Every July, state staff send out a letter outlining changes to the housing policy for the upcoming year. Last summer, the letter told them “employees who received the housing assistance as of June 30, 2009, but do not live in the eligible county will be allowed to continue to receive the housing assistance only through June 30, 2012.”
Employees also would lose their housing allowance if they moved somewhere that still fell outside of the county where they worked, state staff said in the letter. In 2009 and 2010, the annual letter simply said employees must work and reside in a county that is eligible for the housing assistance.
The June 30 deadline was added to the letter last year to allow commission members to review the policy annually, Fausset said.
“The intent is not to penalize anyone,” he said, “but it’s there so they can review it every year.”
The policy about workers who commute to eligible counties changed in 2001, though employees who already were receiving the payment were “grandfathered” into the system, according to meeting minutes.
Fausset said there are 14 state employees in Teton County who receive the payment and commute. New state employees who work in Teton County but live elsewhere do not qualify for the housing assistance and have not been eligible for several years.
“It’s housing assistance,” Fausset said. “Its purpose was to offset the cost of living in that community. It’s not commuting assistance.”
Rhea contends there have been new state hires in the past several years who work in Teton County and reside elsewhere and still receive housing assistance from the state. The letter sent to state staff last year was confusing and led a lot of people to believe they would no longer receive the monthly payment, he said.
“Anybody who reads that letter takes it at face value,” Rhea said.
Without the $786 per month payment, some state staff said they would have to move elsewhere or find new jobs, potentially leaving the state scrambling to fill vacancies.
The stipend was introduced more than a decade ago by state officials looking to attract and hang onto workers. It was an attempt to cover the expenses of living in high-cost areas like Jackson, and to attract workers who might otherwise have been lured by energy jobs, Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said.
“Now that the energy boom has subsided, we’re still doing okay,” Madden said. “There’s not that same competitive threat we once had. But now we have something that people expect, which probably should have never been put there in the first place.”
Teton County is one of three counties where state workers receive housing payments. State employees in Campbell and Sublette counties also receive the allowance.
In 2011, the state Administration and Information Department paid the monthly stipend to 74 state employees in Teton County. The payment rate period ends June 30.
The monthly payment is determined by a survey of how much it costs to rent two-bedroom and three-bedroom homes. State staff use that data to find the average rental rate. Staff who live in counties whose rental rates exceed the state average typically are eligible for housing assistance.
In 2010, the average rental rate in the state was $915 a month. In Teton County, renting a two-bedroom home on average cost $1,701 a month.
For employees in the three counties that qualify for the allowance, the state paid out nearly $120,000 per month last year — about $1.4 million for the year.
Ed Smith, a maintenance foreman for the state transportation department, said housing assistance has helped retain workers and built a skilled, well-trained workforce in his shop.
“Before the housing allowance, guys would make it six months, they’d make it through their first winter, realize they couldn’t make it and take off,” Smith said. “Once it was put in place, people could actually make it work.”
Members of the state employee compensation commission review the housing allowance annually. The board has five voting members, all of whom are appointed by the governor. Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, and Madden are the co-chairmen of the commission. Other members are former state auditor Rita Meyer, who now serves as Rocky Mountain Power’s vice president for Wyoming, Department of Workforce Services Director Joan Evans and Keith Rounds, a former Department of Transportation spokesman.
If commission members stick to the formula typically used to set payments, Teton County workers likely would see a small bump in their monthly stipend.