Troopers on food stamps, taking second jobs amid pay fight

Posted at 1:16 PM, Nov 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-26 14:16:37-05

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — State troopers suing North Carolina for millions of dollars in back pay say the state's broken promises have forced them into tough spots: working second jobs, moving in with parents, even going on food stamps.

About 800 troopers — equivalent to half the force — have joined a class-action lawsuit arguing that the state promised a schedule of regular pay increases when they were hired, but reneged because of budget problems. Many took pay cuts when they were recruited from other agencies, expecting to catch up quickly because of raises traditionally given about once a year.

"I don't think people understand the hard times we're going through," said Master Trooper Rick Quinones, who lives with his wife and two young daughters in a spare bedroom at his parents' house.

His wife and children are covered by Medicaid, he said, and they use WIC government food assistance.

"That's a hit on your pride, especially when you're supposed to be the best that the state has to offer," he said.

The group, which includes some former troopers, is appealing after a trial court judge ruled against them in the nearly 2-year-old case.

"We took an oath to protect the public, and that's what we do. We are in harm's way every day," said Robbie Terry, a 47-year-old master trooper who's based in Columbus County. "It's all about what's right and wrong, and we have been wronged. We've not been paid the money that we were promised."

When Terry became a trooper about eight years ago, he took a pay cut of several thousand dollars from his job as an 8-year veteran of the Lumberton Police Department. He figured the move would pay off because of the raises — 5 percent about once a year — described by recruiters and listed in a pamphlet. Then pay freezes started in 2009.

Traditionally, troopers received the raises for about six years until they became master troopers, commanding a salary around $60,000. But troopers who had yet to reach top pay before the freeze are way behind, said Fred Barbour, a lawyer for the troopers.

For example, Terry and Quinones are each making around $45,000 despite both reaching master trooper rank.

Lawmakers agreed last year to an increase of around 5 percent for troopers who hadn't reached top-pay status. Another such raise is due next year, and a separate boost of 3 percent was given to all troopers, regardless of pay status, in 2015.

Still, troopers argue damage has already been done: Terry says he's behind by tens of thousands of dollars. And if his pay doesn't catch up before retires in a few years, the pain will be compounded by lower retirement benefits based on his salary.

During warm-weather months, he works eight hours each day off cutting grass to supplement his income. The worst part has been losing time with his two sons during their teenage years while working two jobs: "That's years you can't get back."

Others have faced deeper hardship. Sgt. Daniel Jenkins, president of the North Carolina Troopers Association, said the group has given financial help to several troopers behind on house payments or swamped with medical bills. He's heard of as many as a dozen using food stamps or other government assistance, but he suspects others keep the problems to themselves.

"They are very proud. They're ashamed that they can't make ends meet. The real number could be much higher," he said.

The recession caused budget problems for departments around the country. A Police Executive Research Forum survey of more than 600 agencies in 2010 found more than half curtailed salaries among other belt-tightening measures.

The national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Chuck Canterbury, said there have been fights at the bargaining table by state police unions elsewhere since the Great Recession, but North Carolina is the only place where he's aware of troopers suing over pay.

Canterbury said he's heard of officers elsewhere — usually at small-town police departments — who qualify for food stamps or are making close to minimum wage.

Quinones, who patrols Moore and Hoke counties southwest of Raleigh, said his parents offered to let him move in around the time he got married three years ago because he was having trouble keeping his head above water financially.

The 39-year-old, who served six years in the U.S. Army and has been in law enforcement for about 15 years, said he and his wife share a single bedroom with a newborn and 18-month-old. He said they've used WIC and Medicaid since around when their older daughter was born.

He hopes to move out after he saves for a down payment on a house.

In the meantime, the trooper feels judged by cashiers in his small town when he uses a WIC voucher, even if he's not in uniform.

"It's hard especially when you go into your local grocery store with one of those WIC stamps," he said. "You know what they're thinking."