Shifting from earlier reluctance, Gov. Norm Bangerter has notified all state employees he wants departments to begin awarding merit-pay raises for the first time in two years.

The governor announced his position on pay raises in a letter that accompanied employee paychecks last month. He said he has told department heads to identify employees deserving of merit-pay increases and then award those raises through savings generated in the departments.The plan has been advocated by the Utah Public Employees Association for a long time. But the governor was reluctant to take such a step earlier because he feared some departments would find the savings to award raises and others wouldn't. He worried that would create morale problems among employees in the departments that could not award the raises.

His letter came just after a two-year wage-hike freeze imposed by the Legislature expired July 1. But even though the Legislature did not extend the freeze, it did not appropriate any money this year for merit-pay increases.

The pay hikes will be targeted toward two groups of employees in state government, the governor said.

"Some employees who were hired right at the time of the wage freeze came on at low, entry-level wages and they have been at those low wages for the past two years," said Reed Searle, the governor's chief of staff.

About the same time, Searle said, some employees came on to the system at a higher pay grade and level than the usual entry level because of a study indicating what pay scale should apply to certain job descriptions. Those employees have been with the state for the same period of time, and may do similar jobs as the others, but they are paid much more because of the freeze, he said.

"So we are ordering these pay raises to correct that inequity. The employees who have been frozen at the entry-level raises will be one group targeted for the increase, he said.

The other group will be the employees who have "done an outstanding job and deserve merit-pay raises because of their performance," said Searle. Those raises will be based on "outstanding evaluations" given to employees in the past.