To most workers, a 15 percent pay raise over the next two years sounds like a fantasy. But it’s a reality for about 40 percent of Hennepin County’s 7,300 ­government employees.

Last week, the County Board voted 6-1 to approve pay increases of at least 2.5 percent for all county workers — union and nonunion — to take effect Jan. 1. In addition, union employees at the bottom of ­seniority rungs will get more as they advance up the pay scales. The amount of those so-called STEP increases varies by job, but ­averages 5 percent.

The average county employee now makes $60,000 a year, or $28.85 an hour. Those receiving both across-the-board and STEP increases are the ones who’ll get hikes of about 15 percent over the next couple of years, said Bill Peters, the county’s director of labor relations.

The wage increases will cost the county a big chunk of money. A 1 percent across-the-board increase costs $5 million a year, Peters said.

But when commissioners voted on the raises, only Jeff Johnson shook his head and voted no, saying 15 percent raises are too much.

For the past three years, STEP raises have been frozen. And for five of the past 10 years, neither STEP nor across-the-board increases were given. ­Supporters of the raises say it’s high time county employees be rewarded for enduring such multiyear pay freezes. The raises do not herald widespread economic recovery so much as good news for the county, they say.

Even though some Hennepin County workers getting both across-the-board and STEP raises will enjoy double-digit pay increases, the ­majority will receive raises similar to those in neighboring counties and among state workers, many of whom didn’t see the kind of pay freezes Hennepin County employees endured.

Jim Phillips, spokesman for the National Association of Counties, said the Minnesota raises appear to reflect improvement in the economy. But it’s still a “mixed bag” for counties nationwide, he said.

“It doesn’t seem as dire as it did three-four years ago, but there’s still plenty of counties struggling,” Phillips said.

How the raises work

About 62 percent of Hennepin County workers won’t get STEP increases because they’re already at the top of their pay grades. And to receive a STEP increase, an employee’s performance must be rated as at least satisfactory.

Here are a couple of ­examples of how the raises will work:

• A senior psychiatric social worker on the second STEP now earns $23.36 per hour. In January, the general increase will bump that to $23.94. Then, on his hiring anniversary, the social worker will advance to STEP 3, a 5.1 percent increase, and receive $25.17 an hour. (STEP increases vary by job classification, with 5.6 percent the average.) In January 2015, that social worker will get another 2.5 percent increase, pushing his hourly pay to $25.80. His 2015 STEP increase will put him at $27.09 an hour — 16 percent more than he earns now.

• In another category, office specialist 3, an employee at STEP 2 now earns $14.25 an hour. That will climb to $14.60 next month and $15.10 on the employment anniversary. By the end of 2015, that office worker will earn $16 an hour — a 12 percent increase over the current salary, Peters said.

Outside Hennepin County

In Ramsey County, employees’ STEP advancements were never frozen. Ramsey County workers will receive an across-the-board 1.5 percent hike next year after 1 percent this year, no raise in 2012, and 2 percent in both 2010 and 2011, a ­spokesman said.

In Washington County, the roughly 1,170 full-time employees will receive identical 2.5 percent general pay increases in 2014 and 2015. Washington County employees have received annual raises since 2009, as well as STEP raises of about 1.5 percent in the past two years after none in 2011, said Kevin Corbid, deputy county administrator.

Corbid said next year’s increases reflect the improved economy. “The County Board has felt employees did their part during the recession, taking no increases,” he said.

State workers in the two ­biggest public employee unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) — will get larger across-the-board pay increases than ­Hennepin County workers in the next two years of 3 percent annually.

Eliot Seide, executive director at AFSCME Council 5, which represents 18,000 workers statewide, including 4,000 in Hennepin County, said he wouldn’t infer too much from the wage increases.

Pay may be nudging up, but so is the amount employees pay out of pocket for health care, he said.

Defending the thaw

In addition to freezing their pay in the past few years, Hennepin County had encouraged employees to take leave without pay, said County Board Chairman Mike Opat.

Now it’s time to “make up ground,” he said.

“We recognize that the ­market for public employees is competitive and, in some cases, Hennepin County is below the market,” he said. The increases will benefit employees at the same time they help the county keep and attract good workers, he added.

Peters said the raises and their timing make sense. “Employees really did step up and assist us with the bad times.”