We are once again watching the budget crisis reality show up at the state house. And once again state employees are taking a lot of flack. Yeah, right, they are the whole reason this state is in the trouble it is in. And of course, the unions are all to blame. I would like to point out that the unions did what they are supposed to do, advocate/negotiate on behalf of their members. They did a good job. It is the people who were ineffective negotiators on the other side of the table everybody should be upset with. And people keep harping on the 15% co-pay for benefits. That is so not the problem. Let me talk about it as someone who was on the “inside” for a while.
I was working at a very high pressure job. I loved it. But the hours were long. A 65 hour week was a good, easy week. Eventually, it began to take a toll on my family life. When the opportunity at a municipal job came up, I grabbed it. The money was a fraction of what I was used to in the private sector. But the benefits were good. And I knew I would be out the door at 4:30 every day. Now let us clear up something about the benefits. When I started, I was paying 10% for them. It soon went up to 12%. And it may have gone up again before I left, but I really do not recall. I am sick and tired of hearing these idiots on talk radio going on about how in the private sector they would be paying 25% of their benefits. When I was in the private sector, my employer paid 100% of my benefits. I was worth it. I was also worth every penny of my very good salary. As I said, I left it behind for family reasons. But these people who are paying 25% of their benefits get much higher salaries for comparable levels of employment than state or municipal workers. Yes, they do. And of course, you get the whiners who call into talk radio complaining about how much money state or municipal workers earn compared to them. Hey! Dopey! You should have listened to your mother when she told you to finish school. Believe me, these people get adequate pay, but nothing like they would doing the same thing in the private sector. Yes, there is a problem with state and municipal workforces, but it is not anything anyone is screaming about. The problem is all the dead wood. All the people who should not be there. And the problem is, you can’t get rid of them. And if you do a layoff, the dead wood stays and the people who do the actual work go. So your state or municipal office slowly slips into a complete quagmire. So how it looks from the inside…
If you had asked me, anytime during my three years as a municipal employee, if I liked my job, I would have said that I loved it. But two weeks or so after I was laid off, I happened to look at my hands and noticed something curious. I had long fingernails. I hadn’t bitten my fingernails since before my First Communion. I was promised a Timex watch for my First Communion if I would stop biting my nails. I never bit my nails in my high pressured job. But I had been biting my nails for three years – and I hadn’t even really realized it. What stressed me out was the dead wood I was working with. Well, I worked. They didn’t. When I started in my particular office, there were eight people. I could have run the office with three people. And in fact, three people did 95% of the work. I am being generous in crediting that 5% to the rest of them.
Fifty years ago, getting a state or municipal job was a patronage thing. And some of the people who got those jobs were good workers and some weren’t. The problem is that being lousy at your job, or just lazy didn’t matter. You had pull, you stayed. That has changed through the years. I know most people don’t believe that but it is true. I was hired by a Republican and I think we all know I am not now, never have been and never will be a Republican. Well, you say, if that’s true, who cares how they did things years and years ago? I’ll tell you why: THEY ARE STILL THERE!
A couple of months ago, an 83 year old state employee died. Not former, current at the time of his death. There are a shockingly large number of people in state employ and in virtually every municipality who have been there longer than I have been alive. And I am f… f… f… old. I spent three years sitting next to a woman who had been there, well now, forty-eight years (and she is not the longest in city employ). Toddled out of high school and into her desk and stayed put. Never advanced. Never tried to. And in those forty-eight years she has cumulatively put in maybe a month of work. Of course to hear her tell it, anyone would think she single handedly ran the city. Her day consists of drinking coffee, reheating coffee, walking around the building, filing her nails, cleaning her jewelry, making personal phone calls, openly reading magazines at her desk in full view of the tax paying public, opening her personal mail which she brings from home and paying her bills, you get my drift. And she has done this from day one. I know this. How? Because I have seen her performance reviews from day one. They have been handed down from one supervisor to another. And her very first performance review reads almost word for word how I described her work day above. But in the day, her family was politically connected. And once they no longer were, she had a hell of a lot of time in. My husband, who has always worked in the real world, said she just needs a boss with the balls to fire her. But I pointed out she would sue – and has made that clear. Even if proper procedure was followed, if I were her lawyer, my first argument would be “If this has been acceptable behavior for forty-eight years, why is it suddenly not acceptable?” Once in a moment of candor she said to me, “I just stay now to piss everyone off.” Nice. You can imagine how she is with the public.
This is where the state and cities need to make the cuts. They can’t force them to retire. They would have a difficult time firing them. What is needed is good enforceable legislation introduced putting in employment term limitations. Something with real teeth in it and something that does not “grandfather in” people who are already employed. And for those who think you can’t do that, why not? For years, the RI State Police had mandatory retirement at 20 years, then it went to 25 and now it is 30. If there were mandatory retirement policies in place, government offices that had to do layoffs, probably would not have had to. And government offices that are contemplating them, probably would not have to be. Oh, and if you want to collect your full pension, you cannot do so until age 60. If you are young and want to start collecting your pension right away, you can – at a greatly reduced percentage. And it stays at that percentage. It does not go up to full pension when you turn sixty.
If you want to focus on government employees, start focusing in the right areas.
ADDENDUM ADDED APRIL 28 2010: For some actual figures that support what I have said about compensation and benefits, read http://www.rifuture.org/the-undeserved-hit.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter