CHARLESTON, W.Va.--Employees at the West Virginia State Police Crime Lab earn among the lowest average salaries among their peers nationwide, according to federal data.
That's why employees are asking state legislators for raises that would compete with salaries in surrounding states.
Employees are frequently leaving West Virginia to go to other labs where salaries are better, according to State Police Crime Lab director Soraya McClung.
McClung told legislators last month that several sections of the lab are understaffed, creating a backlog of more than 2,800 unanalyzed cases.
The State Police Crime Lab does forensics testing for police agencies across the state, including analysis of drugs, fingerprints, DNA and documents.
Sam Fortener is a former State Police lab technician who left in January for a better-paying position in Ohio. He started working in West Virginia in 2009, but he said he reached a point where he could not earn more money.
"After five years I was stuck," Fortener said. "Where I'm at now, with 10 years of experience my pay will be around $80,000. If I stayed in West Virginia my pay would still be around $34,000."
Forensic lab technicians in West Virginia can expect to earn approximately $37,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national average is approximately $58,000 a year.
Senate Bill 486 seeks to raise starting evidence technician salaries up to $59,000. A starting forensics analyst could earn up to $70,000.
The Senate passed the bill to the House Finance Committee on Feb. 26. The committee was set to review the bill Wednesday.
McClung told legislators that without these raises, the State Police Crime Lab would have a difficult time retaining employees and attracting trained analysts.
Within the past five years, 13 people have left the lab and 12 people transferred sections. Three employees left for other states within the last three months.
Currently 80 percent of employees have less than 10 years experience, McClung told legislators.
The State Police Crime Lab's firearm analysis section, where only two of four positions are filled, there's a backlog of 166 cases and an eight-month turnaround of evidence. In the biochemistry section, which analyzes DNA evidence, there's a backlog of 377 and a six-month turnover.
Fortener said employees frequently left the lab increasing the workload for those who remain.
"If they compensate them then people are going to stay," he said. "Those cases aren't going to get backlogged because there's not that constant turnover."
Crime labs across the country are underfunded and are plagued by a backlog of unanalyzed cases, according to a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences. The report looked at thousands of crime lab across the country and determined that 80 percent were understaffed.
Reach Travis Crum at email@example.com or 304-348-5163.