9 Investigates: Troopers sue state over salaries

by: Stephanie Coueignoux Updated:

9 Investigates: Troopers sue state over salaries
RALEIGH, N.C. —

Dozens of North Carolina Highway Patrol officers are suing the state saying they can't make ends meet on their current salaries.
Their lawsuit claims the state promised them automatic raises but stopped paying those raises five years ago.

Attorney David Wijewickrama is now suing the state on behalf of nearly 60 troopers over the missed raises.

He said some state troopers in North Carolina are losing their homes and even applying for welfare.

"They can't pay the salaries and monies promised to people who are dying protecting the state. It's disgusting. It's unacceptable," Wijewickrama said.

One reason he said is that no trooper received a single raise in the last five years and he said that certain raises based on time and service -- known as step raises -- were guaranteed.

Wijewickrama told 9 Investigates his clients won't go on camera. They're concerned about violating a policy forbidding them to speak badly about the department but he shared a number of their stories.

“There was a trooper in the middle part of the state whose wife was on WIC because they couldn't afford to make ends meet,” he said.

Troopers from 23 counties including Robeson, Cherokee, Cabarrus, Rowan, Cleveland, McDowell, Craven, Clay, Avery, Yancey, Perquimans, Mecklenburg, Lenoir, Sampson, Cumberland, Halifax, Davidson, Davie, Union, Bladen, Johnston, Randolph and Stokes have joined the lawsuit so far.

Keith Lovin served as a state trooper for 23 years and is now sheriff of Cherokee County where several of the troopers who are suing work.

It's a job he said comes with honor.

“For the people who do the job right, with the right heart and the right mindset, it never ends,” Lovin said.

It’s also a job that comes with danger.

Lovin still remembers the day he was shot by a suspect.

“That night I was brought home by a sergeant. I was blind and blind for a few days and having to explain to your son that someone tried to kill you. That's tough for a 6-year-old child to understand,” Lovin said.

Lovin said sacrifice is part of this job, but he doesn't feel it should come at the cost of being able to put food on the table.

"I don't think they would be a great protector of this state if they didn't take care of themselves and their families too," Lovin said.

The Department of Public Safety said the legislature froze trooper raises from 2009 to 2013 because of a severe budget deficit.

It said lawmakers also eliminated positions, implemented a hiring freeze and halted promotions across the state.

The Department of Safety send Channel 9 this statement: "The department is working with the governor and legislators now to ensure that the budgetary needs of the entire patrol are met which include, the statutory 5% pay increases.  Currently, the Highway Patrol is operating at a severe budget deficit.  The governor is aware of this and we are working with his office to provide remedies; legislators are aware of it and we are working hard to provide remedies; and the executive leadership of the department is working with both the executive and legislative branches to provide them with information and recommendations to consider to remedy these challenging budgetary issues."

When it comes to state troopers, one section of the North Carolina law originally enacted in 1981says raises are "subject to the availability of funds". The section below does not.

The troopers' lawsuit claims "the pay raises promised were contractual and were not discretionary."

The Department of Safety told us “any employment contract of salary commitment that is paid in whole or in part with State funds shall also be subject to [the availability of appropriated funds or available funds that are not state funds].”

Wijewickrama said the state is picking and choosing which parts of the law it prefers when deciding on raises for troopers.

“At no time, until recently, was there any language "’based on availability on funding,’" Wijewickrama said.

Lovin hopes, politics aside, the state recognizes that troopers are simply trying to raise families and pay bills like everyone else.

"While the uniform some people look at it as an armor. It's really not as thick as you think it would be," he said.

The state recently approved a 4 percent pay increase to troopers affected by the pay raise freeze.

The attorney wants the state to provide back pay as well.

We also contacted Gov. Pat McCrory's office.

A spokesman referred us back to the Department of Public Safety.