Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Public Employees Under Attack

October 13th, 2010 | James Parks

Image: James ParksThe people who teach our children, protect us from crime, put out fires in our homes and make sure our water is clean are under attack. Conservative pundits and politicians across the country are using the economic crisis to attack public employees and portray them as privileged compared with everyone else. They use the fact that public employees, many of whom are union members, have been able to keep their well-funded pensions, reasonable hours and decent pay to stir up rage from those who have lost these benefits in the private sector.

Many cash-starved state and local governments have used these same arguments as a cover to cut services, personnel and pension benefits to balance their budgets and weaken unions.

Several new studies should put those arguments to rest. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that state and local public employees are actually underpaid. In “Debunking the Myth of the Overcompensated Public Employee: The Evidence,” Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Keefe found that, on average, state and local government workers are paid 3.75 percent less than similar workers in the private sector.

The study also found the benefits that state and local government workers receive do not offset the lower wages they are paid. The differential is greatest for doctors, lawyers and professional employees, the study found. Read Keefe’s report here.

Public employees also work hard for their lower pay, often putting themselves in danger. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), nearly two in five state and local government workers—more than 1.4 million— worked in either physically strenuous jobs or jobs with difficult working conditions. Notably, almost half (47.5 percent) of local government employees between ages 55 and 65 held such jobs. If the retirement age were increased, the report says, many of these workers, due to the physical challenges of their jobs, would have to leave the workforce before they are eligible for full retirement benefits. Read the CEPR report here.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Dan Morris of the nonpartisan Drum Major Institute for Public Policy says the attacks on public employees are absurd and dangerous.

…if public-sector workers become cheap, expendable labor, they will contribute less to the tax base and spend less, blunting private-sector job creation. A healthy public sector is just as good for the investment banker as it is for the unionized electrician.

EPI estimates that every 100 public-sector layoffs result in about 30 private-sector layoffs because the subsequent loss of income dampens consumer spending and thus weakens the economy. Says Morris:

The race to the bottom is a callous attempt to lower expectations for employment at a time when millions of people are counting on them to be raised. No victory worthy of the name can be achieved on those terms.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About The Author: John Petro is an urban policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. He runs the Progressive Urban Model Policies (PUMP) Project, a first-of-its-kind initiative to organize and share best practices in policy design and implementation. His writing on urban issues has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and his recent research has been covered in Politico, The New York Times, Reuters, and other media outlets.

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