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Column: Should Public Workers Have to Pay More?

The state's fiscal mess is mostly not their fault.

Over the last few weeks, the battle over New Jersey public employee pensions and health benefits has been fierce.

Last week, the workers wound up the losers.

The issues often are portrayed as simple ones—the unions are bullies who strong-armed state or local employers to get cushy perks for their members, or the governor and Legislature are the bullies stealing hard won benefits and collective bargaining rights from poor workers.

It’s actually much more complicated than that.

Way back 20 or 30 years ago, there was pretty much no doubt that New Jersey’s public workers on a whole were low-paid compared with people in the private sector. If you went to work in a public job, it was for the benefits, particularly for a good pension.

Then came Gov. Tom Kean’s $18,500 minimum starting salaries for teachers, which had a ripple effect into other jobs. Good times followed and teachers were getting pay raises approaching double digits. Other unions sought similar salary hikes.

Today, there are districts where a 22-year old fresh out of college can make $50,000 teaching from September through June. In 2009, a probationary patrolman in Chatham Township with no experience started at $55K and got a $1,000 bonus for having a bachelor’s degree. State agencies employ about 75 people working as public information officers, earning anywhere from $55,000 to six figures.

So how do public worker salaries compare with the private sector today and what does that mean for other benefits?

Unfortunately, no seems to be able to agree on the answer.

A report by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security found that both the salaries alone and the total compensation, including more generous benefits, of state and local workers are lower than those of comparable private sector employees.

But Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2009 shows that the average government worker made about $2,400 more than the average private sector worker.

But the same data shows that an accountant working in the private sector earned about $7,000 more than a local government accountant.

But one University of Michigan researcher says public sector wages rose 42 percent in the 2000s, compared with 32 percent for private sector wages.

And so on, and so on.

What seems clear is that pay for public workers, particularly those in unions, has kept rising while many in private sector jobs have had to deal with wage freezes or layoffs. Only very recently have public workers agreed to pay freezes or lost their jobs.

Fewer and fewer private workers today have the luxury of a traditional pension, and if they do, there is no guarantee their employer won’t freeze or cut its benefits before they retire or after. Public pensions, on the other hand, are sacrosanct.

Taxpayers are jealous.

But is that any reason to impose the kind of large pay cuts–and forcing workers to pay more for their pensions and health benefits is a pay cut–that a majority of lawmakers just approved, and that Gov. Chris Christie is likely to sign?

Under the legislation, workers would have to pay as much as an additional 2 percent of salary to fund their pensions and several thousand dollars, depending on their pay, for family health insurance.

If you are of a certain age, you remember when everyone had a traditional health insurance plan, which allowed him to go to any doctor without need of pre-certifications, and he paid little or nothing for it. That’s the first health insurance I had as a full time, private sector worker in a low-wage reporting job.

Today, it seems, everyone is stuck in an HMO or PPO with all sorts of rules and limitations and is paying on average 30 percent of the premium for a family policy, or $4,000 a year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust. How we got here is a complex national problem that President Barack Obama’s health care reform did not fix, and Congress does not seem to want to try to tackle.

How New Jersey’s pension funds became so deeply underfunded, however, is an easier question to answer. It includes legislators of both parties handing out pension enrichments to individuals and groups as freely as candy on Halloween while at the same time governors starting with Christie Whitman in the 1990s up to Chris Christie last year refused to make the necessary payments into the system, and sometimes told local governments they didn’t have to make any payments either. The result, according to the New Jersey treasurer, is a $54 billion unfunded liability that was the fault of local workers only in that they sought or agreed to higher pension payouts.

Now they are the ones suffering.

Should they?

Reminds me of what happens in corporate American. The CEO of a national corporation is desperate to make the bottom line attractive to investors so he cuts staff at local offices. The local offices put out a smaller and less attractive product and lose customers. Income drops. To save the bottom line, he cuts more staff, thousands of hard-working relatively low-paid employees over the period of a couple of years. The product keeps suffering, the customers keep abandoning it. And for this, he receives $9.4 million a year in pay and stock options, not to mention the other perks of office.

The average worker just can't catch a break.

If you want more details about the legislation, you can find an explanation here.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. 

Joe R July 04, 2011 at 06:08 PM
Wow, Steve, you are quite the class act. Idiots in Greece? That sounds like a very biased comment to me. I saw the peaceful demonstrations in Trenton, no one was being tear gassed or beaten to a pulp. You know, it was a very peaceful demonstration and there was no need for aggressive police actions. I find your remarks to be rude, misinformed and pathetic. You seem to be channeling your inner Joe McCarthy.
Steve in Kingston July 04, 2011 at 06:36 PM
Sorry Joe but here are the facts. Fact 1 At a public workers rally held in Trenton, Christopher Shelton, vice-president of the CWA referred to NJ Governor Christie as Adolf Hilter. “Good afternoon brothers and sisters. Welcome to Nazi Germany. We have Adolf Christie and his two generals trying to make New Jersey Nazi Germany.” Fact 2 Two dozen union workers were arrested including the head of the state's AFL-CIO, were escorted from the room by uniformed state and issued disorderly persons summonses. Peaceful? Maybe if you are a pro-Nazi or ant-Semitic!. Fact 3 Greek Public sector workers have received generous salaries (Like NJ where government salaries are higher than average workers) , including 13 and 14 months’ bonus pay (like NJ where every week we here about outrageous sick day payouts), an early retirement age and job security (Like NJ where no government workers or teachers ever get fired). The Greek government estimates approximately 700,000 people — or about 6 percent of the population — work for the federal government, although independent estimates put the number of Greek bureaucrats as high as 1 million. Doesn’t this sound just like New Jersey? Bloated government with overpaid, overcompensated delusional workers. So yes the Greeks are idiots! And sound similar to the NJ union protestors and ungrateful state and municipal employees.
morrigan July 04, 2011 at 08:03 PM
Sorry, Steve. You are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts. "The majority of state and municipal workers are simply overhead to NJ taxpayers and provide littlle economic utility.." You have got to be kidding! Imagine that all public sector employees went on strike. Someone breaks and enters your home? Sorry, police are on strike. Your house catches fire?. Sorry, no firefighters to answer the call. All public school employees not working? Education issues aside, what are you going to do with the kids? Those are just the obvious examples. Little economic utility? Think again. As for your "Facts" 1, 2, and 3 -- these Nazi references -- on your part and on theirs -- are inappropriate. The people who were escorted out of the state house -- yes, peaceful. The word 'escorted' implies that they left without resistance. If they had been yelling and screaming and struggling with the officials, the article might have said they were 'removed' or perhaps 'ousted.'
morrigan July 04, 2011 at 08:03 PM
Christie is indeed acting like a fascist, however. He continues to behave in a high-handed and insulting manner to most of the taxpayers in New Jersey. He does not care what most of us think. He cares only about his 'partners in crime' -- and then only as far as he can use them. Look what he did to Schundler earlier this year, and more recently to Sweeney. NJ public sector salaries are NOT higher than public sector workers. And I don't know any public employees who have received bonus pay -- I know many in the private sector who have. And watch out for 'ever,' Government workers and teachers who do not do their jobs do get fired.
morrigan July 04, 2011 at 08:04 PM
Time was, workers in both the public and private sectors had job security. You do your job, you have the job. Until the 'corporate greed' model took over, private employees retired with their gold watch and a good pension. There was company loyalty -- both ways. Today, private sector workers do not have that. They should. Public sector workers -- who do earn less than private sector workers overall, whatever you say about it -- still have a certain degree of job security, and still get pensions. It seems as though you are saying, "WE don't get that so YOU shouldn't, either." Everybody should have those things. Finally, "ungrateful"? Are you a grateful employee? While gratitude is indeed important, I'd guess day to day most of us feel we've done our work and we have earned our pay and benefits. Gratitude comes in when someone does something good for us above or beyond the ordinary...
Steve in Kingston July 04, 2011 at 08:32 PM
Gee remember when the state government had to close because of a budget crisis a few years ago...no one even noticed! As for fireman....here's a tidbit for ya...in south Brunswick 100% of the fireman are volunteers ( I know because I am one!). In fact close to 70% on NJ firefighters are volunteer. However this something that the union is desperately trying to change so they can add more members and raise taxes.
morrigan July 04, 2011 at 09:05 PM
Well, Steve, I'm not sure that "no one even noticed." For sure, it must not have affected you very much, though. Volunteer firemen are crucial to municipalities like South Brunswick. They continue to update their professional training, and they respond whenever and wherever they are called. You do an important job for your community, as do the volunteer firefighters in communities across New Jersey. Some communities -- particularly urban communities -- cannot, for many different reasons, operate or maintain a volunteer fire company. The firefighters they employ face the same dangers and challenges that you do, and likely some additional ones as well. This is their job, their source of income for themselves and their families. Their salaries, their benefits and their pensions need to be negotiated with their employers. I can't see where it is wrong for them to form and join unions! (And though unions may well want to add members, the purpose of unions is not to raise taxes. The intention is to represent workers who individually would have little say in how they were treated otherwise.)
Joe R July 05, 2011 at 12:18 AM
Volunteer fire departments are not free. Tax payers pay for all the equipment, the fire engines, the upkeep of the firehouses, the whole water infrastructure for the fire hydrants and the fire hydrants themselves and the insurances for all of the previously mentioned items. Questions: Who pays for the training of the volunteers? Does the volunteer have to pay for his own firefighter clothing (hat, suit)? Who pays if the firefighter is injured on the job, disabled for life or killed? Is it just tough luck for the volunteer firefighter and his family?
morrigan July 05, 2011 at 12:44 AM
Did somebody say they were free? Training of the volunteers, firefighting turnout gear, and insurance for volunteer firefighters are all paid for by the fire district. The fire district, like the school district, puts out a budget for the community to vote on every year. I don't know what the terms of the insurance are but no, it's not just tough luck for the volunteer firefighter and his family. I'm not sure what point you are trying to make here. You probably know all of this already. How does this fit in with the 'public workers' question?
Steve in Kingston July 05, 2011 at 01:55 AM
Hey Joe and Morrigan rather than complain and whine that we cannot live without the government why don't you volunteer at the first aid squad or fore company? Not sure the point you are making but yes taxes pay for the infrastructure not salaries, beneifts or pensions. The cost of a paid fire department is several... yes several times more expensive than a volunteer company. Oh yes I forgot if me or one of my brothers dies in the course of fighting or responding to a fire we get a whopping $10,000!
Joe R July 05, 2011 at 12:32 PM
My point: Even a volunteer fire department is a function of the government and could not exist without significant tax dollars and the water/fire hydrant infrastructure. The government collects the taxes that make the volunteer fire department even possible. Gee, isn't that socialism according to the right wingers? The anti-government right wingers/libertarians/Ayn Randians all seem to point to volunteer fire fighters as proof that we don't need a professional unionized firefighting force. THEY seem to think it's free. Some of the extreme libertarians want to privatize the police and replace them with Pinkertons, for example. What's next, privatize the judicial system. Sure, let Walmart run the courts, that should work. Larger cities and more populous communities in which fires and emergencies of all description occur much more frequently, need a professional unionized force. Does anyone remember the heroes of 9/11 who also happened to be unionized firefighters, police, EMTs and Port Authority workers? Hundreds of UNIONIZED workers died on that day saving the lives of thousands of Americans, rich or poor. And yet the right wingers constantly bash, demean and lie about the value of hard working middle class unionized public sector workers. It's a truly disgusting spectacle. I certainly salute the excellent volunteer fire departments, they are heroes, too.
Lisa Shields July 05, 2011 at 12:41 PM
No offense Collen, but I know half a dozen young teachers who have started working in the last two years. They are bright, and capable---and not a single one is making more than 35K...which is considered a low salary to start in any private sector professional position. Most started at 30K, and some were laid off with the recent cuts. While there may be rare districts that pay more, it is far from the norm. And no, I am not a teacher myself, nor am I a state worker.
morrigan July 05, 2011 at 02:28 PM
Steve -- we all have our own gifts. When we give back to our communities, it will be in different ways. My friends who are volunteer firefighters and first aid squad members are people who thrive on quick action, quick thinking and dramatic events. Not all of us are like that. From food pantry volunteers to water quality monitors to literacy volunteers to the folks who provide rides for housebound seniors, different community volunteers contribute in different ways. Joe is right about "the government." Steve, the basic idea is that we ARE the government. The idea is that we choose the people who represent us, -- locally, in Trenton and in Washington. (What is actually happening may be another story -- however, government is not where the problem lies. It's the corporate-political monster that is rearing its ugly head. But that's another post.) These people who rail against the idea of government either do not know what they are talking about or they are trying to mislead you. Have you seen this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QDv4sYwjO0
Steve in Kingston July 05, 2011 at 06:16 PM
Morrigan, Please stop the condescension! “These people who rail against the idea of government either do not know what they are talking about or they are trying to mislead you.” Please…what kind of dribble is this? Why do some Patch posters paint all public employees as Saints and Mother Theresa while vilifying all of the private sector SUCESSFUL taxpayers! When you state that “ the corporate-political monster that is rearing its ugly head. “ You must mean things like, 1.Rush Holt a.Receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from law firms, pharmaceutical companies and security firms 2.Menendez receiving a.Over $10k in political donations from an indicted real estate developer b.Over $100K in political donations from Goldman Sachs c.Over $50K in political donations from Prudential 3.Lautenberg a.Receiving political donations in excess of $150K from investment bankers Cantor Fitzgerald, Apollo, Goldman Sachs, etc. 4.Barbara Keshishian – NJEA President a. Annual salary of over $270k, while forcing the rank and file teacher union members to beg for crumbs I agree! So if we want to finally cut the head off of this ugly “corporate political monster”, I guess the answer is simple…vote for anyone but a Democrat at each and every election!
morrigan July 06, 2011 at 12:50 AM
Well, Steve, scratch the surface of most of the Republicans in Congress and you will find much, much worse. Those contributions are hardly earthshattering, though if your information is accurate, certainly worth taking a look at. Sorry you felt I was condescending --“These people who rail against the idea of government either do not know what they are talking about or they are trying to mislead you.” That was not intended to be condescending, nor is it "dribble." It is the truth! I guess you did not look at the link. It is satire, and like most satire contains a substantial dollop of truth. I will say that you ARE over the top when you say, "some Patch posters paint all public employees as Saints and Mother Theresa while vilifying all of the private sector SUCESSFUL taxpayers!"
morrigan July 06, 2011 at 12:50 AM
I can't speak for others; but I can tell you that as far as I'm concerned, we're all human. Nobody is perfect. As humans, however, we do have a responsibility toward one another. That is why you are a firefighter. That is why I speak up for people whose voices are being drowned out by lies, misinformation and hurtful rhetoric. Today's Republicans do not seem to feel that human responsibility for all. They seem to feel responsibility only to the top 2 percent -- the rest of us don't matter to them. The people I "vilify" are the people who are behaving in a greedy and selfish manner. As I said before, you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. Here is a website that shows ALL campaign contributions to ALL Senators and Congressmen. Look around. You can see pretty quickly who is beholden to whom. http://maplight.org/us-congress/contributions
Joe R July 06, 2011 at 01:17 AM
Steve, please adjust your medication, you are falling off the rails. Just because some right wing sites or Gearhart say it's true doesn't make it so. Morrigan is a class act. Morrigan responds to Steve's fairly ludicrous assertions with aplomb, reason, logic and truth. The problem with our country today is that the corporations are buying our politicians (D or R but R is a wholly owned subsidy of corporate America). The multinationals have an army of lobbyists in DC, they pay for the campaigns, they hire the politicians (R or D) as lobbyists after their "service" in Congress and they also pay for the campaigns of compliant judges as Massey Energy did in WV. We now have a nation of the corporations, for the billionaires and by the Wall Street banksters. It's not we the people but we the corporations.
Joe July 06, 2011 at 02:05 AM
Lisa, I think the discussion is not about teachers, but specifically public school teachers. If you can name one public school district in this area that has a starting salary below $40,000 I would be shocked. There are quite a few where the starting salary is over $50,000. If you know a teacher who is earning less than $35,000 then they are part-time, work in a charter school, work in a parochial school, are a substitute or work somewhere besides New Jersey.
Joe July 06, 2011 at 02:06 AM
@ Lisa, I think the discussion is not about teachers, but specifically public school teachers. If you can name one public school district in this area that has a starting salary below $40,000 I would be shocked. There are quite a few where the starting salary is over $50,000. If you know a teacher who is earning less than $35,000 then they are part-time, work in a charter school, work in a parochial school, are a substitute or work somewhere besides New Jersey.
Steve in Kingston July 06, 2011 at 02:24 AM
Joe not only are you a ideologue but a plagarist. If you want to flame please be original. Morrigan...so it's ok for "Slow Poke" Menendez and Frank LOUSEnberg to say they are for the small guy and unions while taking thousands of dollars from the people you hate...but I am sure you still vote for them because the are DUMBOcrats.
morrigan July 06, 2011 at 03:56 AM
As I said, Steve: When push comes to shove, those guys come down on the right side of most issues. Their record is pretty good. At this stage in the game, it would be hard for me to trust any Republican further than I could throw him (or her).
morrigan July 06, 2011 at 04:14 AM
And Joe -- I appreciate your regard for my posts. I believe that these conversations are beneficial, and it is really good to know that another participant in our discussion finds them clear and reasonable. I generally do not respond at all to ideologues. Steve did not strike me as an ideologue. He made some good points, and I wanted to respond to him. But now the conversation seems to be deteriorating into name calling, so I'm not sure where this is going to lead us....
Steve in Kingston July 06, 2011 at 11:48 AM
Morrigan...correction. If you read my posts I try to keep them direct, to the point and based on facts. While others....launch personal attacks when they cannot justify their opions when presented with facts. However, i have to call you out. While you rail against corporate greeds effect on the average person...you support two of the most egregious members of the senate as it comes to being on payroll of the greedy monsters you despise. I guess it's ok as long as they are your tyrants!
morrigan July 06, 2011 at 02:13 PM
Maybe you are right, but I don't think so. So far I have not been able to find the numbers you quoted. Can you tell me your source? My guess is that the big corporate players that we're talking about hedge their bets. If they know someone is likely to get elected, they want to be on record as having contributed. The amounts you mentioned are small change for those big businesses. But I'd love to know how much they contributed to the challengers! If Senators Lautenberg and Menendez, and Congressman Holt are "on the payroll of the greedy monsters I despise," they certainly do not seem to be doing their bidding. As I mentioned before, our members of Congress seem far more often to take the part of the middle class and the 'little guy.' As I said, nobody is perfect. Not you, not me, not those men, not Governor Christie. But actions speak louder than words. And the actions of our Democratic lawmakers serve the people of New Jersey far better than the actions of our Governor. Looking for a tyrant? He is a good example.
Steve in Kingston July 06, 2011 at 02:48 PM
LOUSEnberg http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/summary.php?cid=n00000659 “Slow Poke” Menedez http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/summary.php?cid=N00000699 These two are liars...claiming to be for the little guy but fostering and supporting big money donors with back room deals and government special treatment. Christie ran as a bully and is being honest...he acting as a bully! Truth in advertising!
debbie soto July 06, 2011 at 03:23 PM
I dont need to receive anymore
Joe R July 06, 2011 at 03:38 PM
I would drop the use of the term, LOUSEnberg because it was coined by that right wing fascist talk radio thug and bully, Bob Grant. He gave massive air time to racist callers and he used some racially loaded words himself which eventually got him kicked off the air though he did resurface in other venues.
Steve in Kingston July 06, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Who is Bob Grant? I find it entertaining how people throw the word "racist" around like its supposed to scare people off or something. LOUSEnberg is a do nothing, back bench senator who has done absolutely NOTHING for NJ citizens!
Joe R July 06, 2011 at 05:56 PM
Steve, under the PIACS article you accused the protesters of being racist and you accused one of the commenters of being racist who didn't happen to agree with you. Talk about throwing the term racist around, that's exactly what YOU did.
Steve in Kingston July 06, 2011 at 06:24 PM
OK Joe you are right....I admit it! You are a racist, I am a racist we are all racists.... Can we stop now.

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