Gov. Christine Gregoire says she's convinced state wages have fallen too far behind local government and private industry. "We have nothing to...

OLYMPIA — Gov. Christine Gregoire says she’s convinced state wages have fallen too far behind local government and private industry.

“We have nothing to recruit with, because we are so far beneath the private sector,” Gregoire said.

The new state-worker pay raises, which take effect today, will help close that gap, she said.

The raises were negotiated by the governor’s office and more than a dozen unions that represent more than two-thirds of state-agency workers.

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All state employees get 3.2 percent cost-of-living raises now, and another 2 percent a year from now. The contracts also renew a 1.6 percent raise workers got last year.

While the cost-of-living raises also apply to nonunion employees, the Legislature delayed the raises for those workers by two months.

On top of the raises, the state is adding a new step to most pay ranges, which means more than 44,000 employees at the top of their pay ranges will get an additional 2.5 percent raise.

In addition, thousands of state workers are getting special raises aimed at combating recruitment and retention problems in specific job classes.

The new contracts say no worker’s salary can be more than 25 percent behind the prevailing wage for their particular job class. The clause is based on a biennial survey that compares state-worker wages to those paid by large employers in local government and the private sector.

More than 22,000 workers are getting extra increases ranging from 2.5 percent to 17.5 percent.

According to the salary survey, for instance, nurses in state government were making 42.5 percent less than nurses in comparable positions at private hospitals and medical centers in Washington.

Under the new contracts, hundreds of nurses at the state’s psychiatric hospitals, prisons and a handful of other agencies are getting a 17.5 percent increase on top of the 5.2 percent cost-of-living raises.

The raises are worth $10,000 to $15,000 for many nurses and will push some salaries above $90,000 a year.

The state also has been having trouble hiring and keeping corrections officers at state prisons.

Under the new contracts, many corrections officers will get special raises aimed at enticing more people to apply and at keeping existing workers from jumping to higher-paying jobs in county jails.

In all, more than 3,200 corrections officers are getting raises over the next two years ranging from 12.7 percent to more than 17 percent — increases worth $5,000 to $7,000 annually for most guards.

Other job classes getting double-digit increases include pharmacists, supply officers, insurance examiners, transportation engineers and maintenance technicians.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or