Sedgwick County District Court employees are paid so little that they have started a pantry at work for those who can’t afford to buy food, the court’s top judge said Monday.
The pantry sits just down the hall from the office of Chief Judge James Fleetwood, who told lawmakers the need for it is embarrassing. Kansas courts seek more money to provide pay raises to workers, but some lawmakers have said they need to balance court funding with other needs.
"Those who haven’t eaten, those who are struggling to feed their children, those who are having some difficulty making one paycheck to the next, will come up to that pantry, and without asking questions or qualifying, are able to take cans of tuna fish, boxes of mac and cheese, peanut butter, bread and take that home," Fleetwood said.
Nearly a third of all workers in the Kansas justice system have starting salaries below the 2017 federal poverty level for a family of four, or $28,290. Every judicial branch job position pays below market rate, Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said last month in his State of the Judiciary speech.
The pantry at the Sedgwick County District Court – about four months old, Fleetwood said – is perhaps the starkest example yet of the staffing struggle the judicial branch faces statewide. More than a third of full-time Sedgwick County court workers work a second job to make ends meet, Fleetwood said, compared with 6.2 percent of Kansas workers generally.
The employees deserve better, he said. They can go work for cities, or the federal government or even retail stores and call centers and make more money.
"It’s a sad situation and I really hope that you will understand that it’s not a situation that will get any better soon. It will only get worse and worse," Fleetwood said.
In December, Sedgwick County District Court had three openings for an entry-level trial court clerk and three applicants, but only one was qualified.
The starting pay for the positions: $11.80 an hour. As Nuss noted in his address, it’s only slightly higher than Walmart’s new starting wage of $11.
The Judicial Branch is seeking more funding from the Legislature to boost salaries. The courts are asking for nearly $10.3 million for non-judge employees and $7.5 million for judges.
A House committee met Monday to consider the request, but will take action later.
The Judicial Branch has sought funding increases in the past and has received limited pay raises. Fleetwood said those have been absorbed by the rising cost of living and increased contribution requirements for pensions and health insurance. Pay remains below market value, he said.
This year’s request comes at a moment of high tension between lawmakers and the courts. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled this fall that public schools are inadequately funded and gave the Legislature until April 30 to come up with a solution.
"We’ve lost sight that there are three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. And because of some of ideology or ‘I didn’t get what I want’… there’s been this back and forth war going on and in that war we’ve lost sight that we need to be working together and not apart," said Rep. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee.
Kansas has had to cut budgets in recent years, but has a sizable surplus this year. In addition to the courts, state agencies, schools and others are vying for the extra cash.
Rep. Chuck Weber, R-Wichita, said he respects the people who work in the courts and said court employees who spoke to lawmakers on Monday made a great case. Everybody deserves more money, he said.
But speaking during the committee meeting, he framed the funding request in terms of priorities.
"How, if you were sitting on this side of the table, do you justify that person, that woman who’s taking care of grandma in a Medicaid-assisted hospital who hasn’t had a raise in nine years, or a corrections officer who’s at a prison, way below market value, mental health professionals…I’m just asking you to help me construct priorities on this side of the table," Weber said.
"How do you do that? Help me prioritize you over maybe some of those other examples that I mentioned."
Stephanie Bunten, chief financial officer of the Judicial Branch, responded that she couldn’t say. "All I know is the stories that we hear day in and day out of our employees, of the food bank, people cobbling money together" to help pay medical bills and daycare.
"We’re here asking for your help with that."