Kansas Judicial Branch Wages So Low One Court Resorts To Food Pantry For Employees

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The Sedgwick County Courthouse Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, in Wichita, Kan. (Orlin Wagner/AP)
The Sedgwick County Courthouse Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, in Wichita, Kan. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

State courts in Kansas are looking for $18 million to give their employees a pay raise. Wages are so low that nearly a third of state employees in the justice system are paid below the federal poverty level.

The situation has gotten so bad at the Sedgwick County District Court in Wichita that employees have started a food pantry for their co-workers. Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd speaks with the court's chief judge, James Fleetwood.

Interview Highlights

On the setting up the food pantry

"It's something that our employees actually recognized on their own. They saw the difficulties that co-workers were dealing with. And so those with a little extra food stocked a pantry for those that were without. We provided some space for that. And as the community has become more aware of the existence of this pantry, several groups have wanted to help out. We even had a class of schoolchildren that contacted us and asked if they could have a food drive to help stock the pantry.

"People do use it. We've emptied the shelves almost twice now. We've had to go out and restock the shelves. We've just done that just recently. It's embarrassing truly that we have to do something like this."

On why wages for judicial branch employees are so low

"It's difficult. I will admit the economy is difficult. We've gone through an era of trying to adjust taxes through a prior administration, and the economy has not responded as hoped, I suppose. Revenue streams have dropped to the point where they cannot provide the salary for employees. Thirty-two percent of my employees have to have part-time jobs, compared to the state average worker who, only 6.2 percent of the average workers in Kansas have an extra job to make bills."

"People do use it. We've emptied the shelves almost twice now. We've had to go out and restock the shelves."

James Fleetwood

On making the state courts a priority

"There's often questions asking, 'Well, why the court, not every other employee that the state may have?' And I try to distinguish that we're not talking about expanded government services. We're talking about a third branch of the government. The officers of that branch of government must be financed appropriately. Their support staff must be financed appropriately."

On the difficulties of attracting employees

"When I first started as chief judge, we would have a position open up, there would be 15 people would apply for it. It was seen as a beginning-of-a-career job. Now, we're lucky to get five people apply for it. Of those, we are lucky if we have one that even qualifies for the job. So it's getting more and more difficult to get good talent in, and it's becoming just as difficult to keep those people here. We have people leaving us all the time because they can go to any call center and have an immediate and substantial raise.

"I've done everything I possibly can and introduced as much technology as I possibly can to to make the court efficient. We have a paperless court. We use computers and an e-filing as much as we possibly can. Those efficiencies that we can introduce, I think we've used up all of that. Our people have been as creative as they possibly can, and at this point in time it will be the quality of justice that will deteriorate if we cannot keep trained employees on the job."

This article was originally published on February 12, 2018.

This segment aired on February 12, 2018.



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