The plight of the paper pushers
The great recession made bashing public workers a national sport
One day in 1987, I began a new job as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state. On that first day at work I had to send one of our employees home because we thought she had scarlet fever. It turned out she had hives, but it was not the last time I encountered such symptoms of anxiety. She, like her colleagues in the office, worked herself into a state of fatigue every day trying to keep up with the workload. Financial reasons kept supplies chronically short, equipment aged, and repairs undone. In the basement section of our office, a proposed false ceiling had never been installed, so workers sat at their desks under exposed pipes and insulation. A fine fiberglass dust fell on them from the insulation all day long, causing skin irritations.
One Saturday, the secretary of state, who was a member of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, was returning to Reno from the south shore of Lake Tahoe. She stopped in at the office in the capitol and caught three workers at their desks, struggling even on a weekend when the office was closed to keep up with the workload.
For many years before taking that job, I had covered the Nevada Legislature and heard from both sides—those who loved to depict public employees as indolent feeders at the public trough, and those who championed them as noble keepers of the flame of public service. I had little basis for judging who was describing the situation more accurately.
As the months in that job passed, I dug into available figures. Census reports and other statistics showed clearly that in a time of terrific population growth, the number of public employees in Nevada had been declining, even as the tasks assigned them were increasing. Thus, fewer and fewer workers had to do more and more work.
When we proposed to the Legislature that the one-person elections division be augmented, I drafted a memo listing all the additional duties that had been assigned to that one person over the years by the Legislature. The data was unambiguous—one employee had more work piled on her desk every two years for more than a decade. (While I was there, that one employee proposed a job sharing arrangement under which she could have a life outside the office. Her duties were divided between two half-time positions.)
As our office’s liaison with other agencies, I had an opportunity to observe the situation elsewhere in state government. There were a few agencies which were fairly well-heeled. For instance, economic development had a long streak of good fortune with legislative budgeters. And there were agencies, such as the state archives, which were perpetually starved for funds (two different budget directors suggested the archives be abolished).
But most agencies were like ours, somewhere in the middle, filled with workers who were stressed out, fed up, overworked and bailing out in incredible numbers. State government had then, and continues to have now, an appalling turnover rate, with prison guards leading the list.
Anti-public worker attitudes have been around for years, of course, and have served a political purpose. Demonizing government workers is an enduring technique, particularly since verification is difficult for most members of the public whose principal contact with the government is at the motor vehicles department.
Over the years, I’ve read or heard a lot of attacks on public workers. The ones I had time to check out never panned out.
I’ve sat around lunch tables in restaurants and told these kinds of stories to other reporters or those in private business. They seldom credit them—the stereotype of lazy, arrogant bureaucrats skillfully sold by chambers of commerce is too strong, or public workers are too useful as public enemies.
That stereotype is fed constantly with carefully crafted misinformation that the public has no time to sort out and that labor has not been able to effectively combat.
• Earlier this year, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, did what it does every year—issue a report calling public worker pay too high. Nevada public employees are the ninth highest paid in the nation, it said.
A follow-up story in the Las Vegas Sun put the Chamber study in perspective: “The Nevada numbers, however, are not entirely what they seem.” The newspaper noted that particularly high figures for police and fire distorted the overall numbers. Teachers, for instance, are 3 percent below the national average, even by the Chamber’s own numbers. In addition, pay figures were inflated by deliberate overtime policies that were not of the workers’ making: “The overtime hours are the result of an odd policy choice by local government officials. They have decided paying the overtime is cheaper than hiring and training new employees.” Of course, it’s more politically useful for the Chamber to blame the workers.
And a few days ago, economist Elliott Parker pointed out another factor: “The Statistical Abstract reports that the average wage for Nevada’s state employees was about 7 percent higher than the national average in 2008, while city and county employees earned 20 percent more. However, Nevada’s cost of living was about 10 percent higher than the national average, so our state employees were really paid about average.” Nevada must compete with other states for workers, just like the public sector.
• Last year, former Bush administration economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth wrote, “Even though Americans face a 9.6 percent unemployment rate, with almost 15 million out of work, President Obama and Congress are trying to take more jobs from private businesses through ‘insourcing,’ which means taking contracts from private firms and giving the work to government employees.”
Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker, author of Taking Economics Seriously, responded: “She is upset about an insourcing policy that gives preference to the public sector over private contractors. However, that is not the policy in place. The policy only gives preference to the public sector in cases where the work in question has an inherently governmental character (think of interrogating prisoners) or there had been a past history of abuse by private contractors (think of Halliburton).The simple fact is that the role of private contractors in the federal government has exploded [expanded] in the past decade.”
• In a July 5 posting on a blog of the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute, Victor Joecks claimed sarcastically that “state worker unemployment rate hits a staggering .21 percent. … Out of the almost 17,000 state employees, only 37 have received layoff notices effective today, the start of the new fiscal year.”
But on the Nevada View blog, Justin McAffee wrote, “The Las Vegas Sun reported that 37 employees of 17,000 were laid off on July 1, 2011, the very first day of the fiscal year. So NPRI is basing this .21 percent unemployment rate on one single day of layoffs. That’s like me pointing to a day when 40 private sector employees were laid off and saying, gee, what’s so bad about that? First, this isn’t an unemployment rate by any stretch of the imagination. It certainly doesn’t account for all the state and local government employees that have been laid off, or who are out of work. A few years ago there were 21,000 state employees. Now there [are] 17,000. That’s a 19 percent reduction. … Let’s also not forget that Nevada has the fewest public employees per capita in the nation.” It’s also about 5 percent higher than Nevada’s peak overall unemployment during the recession.
The original Joecks posting was picked up and reposted by the UNLV College Republicans and the State Policy Network, so it lives on, as bad information has a way of doing.
• Business and conservatives often produce misleading claims by comparing government pensions and pay to samples that include small businesses. But governments are more comparable to large corporations and big box stores than to small businesses. “[T]he large share of small businesses in the private sector—which typically offer lower levels of both pay and benefits than larger firms—also distorts comparisons,” according to CEPR. “State and local employee benefit levels are similar to those in large private establishments, which are the more natural comparison group.”
• Nevada’s public worker retirement problems are frequently exaggerated, the contribution of workers to their own pensions underestimated, and the changes already made discounted. Nevada workers went for many years with minor pay hikes or none in order to get better health benefits in their retirements and then were threatened with reductions. Starting in 2010 in Nevada, new state government workers receive smaller pension benefits and must work longer to get them.
In addition, in some states workers participate in both the state retirement system and in Social Security, and then draw pensions from both systems. In Nevada, public workers are excluded from Social Security.
• Earlier this year, the right wing website Newsmax claimed that public workers have “ironclad protections from being fired or laid off.” As someone who has personally written public employee evaluations that could be used to fire, I know that this old canard is false.
• In March, Americans for Prosperity—a front group for anti-worker billionaire David Koch and other reactionaries—produced a report designed to support Wisconsin’s governor and legislature, then engaged in enacting cuts in labor rights, a report parroted without scrutiny from some sites such as Newsmax. The report claimed that public workers earn dramatically more than private sector workers. It specifically mentioned Nevada as an example.
But last year the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a study that found public workers actually pay a “wage penalty” of about 4 percent compared to workers of the same age and education in the private sector.
The study reported that when uncooked statistics are examined, it appears that public workers earned about 13 percent more than private sector workers. But then they factored in age, experience and education. Governments generally have greater need for skilled and educated workers than does the private sector. If government were hiring the equivalent of fast food or car wash workers for jobs calling for specific skills, the public would raise hell.
CEPR found that government workers average about four years older than private sector workers, suggesting more work experience, and that public workers have better education credentials—half of them have a four-year college degree, or higher. Less than a third in the private sector have those education levels. When those factors are accounted for, government workers earn less than private sector workers. And the disparity grows the longer workers are in public service. “The highest paid workers—typically the older and better-educated workers that are disproportionately employed in the public sector—pay the biggest wage penalty in state and local jobs,” according to the report’s author, CEPR senior economist John Schmitt.
Other researchers have produced similar findings.
Bureaucrats in the movies
For most people, who rarely interact with government, misinformation is difficult to confirm or deny in the absence of competing material. So it finds fertile ground in some members of the public. Recently this newspaper ran an editorial disagreeing with a public employee—city fiscal aide Robert Chisel—on policies involving big box stores. The editorial was intended to deal with the issue without demonizing Chisel. Readers were less restrained. From behind anonymity, they belittled him personally: “a fucking idiot and a traitor to Reno”; “modest moron”; “hates Reno and Renoites”; “scumbag anti-local on the dole Robert Chisel”; “scarily ignorant or maliciously arrogant.” These terms were laced with other comments about public workers generally.
But propaganda is not the only obstacle public workers face. It is not uncommon for public officials to try to solve revenue problems with what amounts to a tax on public employment. During one recession, when neither the Legislature nor governor was willing to raise taxes, Gov. Robert Miller proposed cancelling a state worker pay hike to keep the Nevada budget in balance. No other occupational group was to be tapped for additional revenue, making it in effect a tax on working for the state. In 2008, Nevada Manufacturers Association lobbyist Ray Bacon called for a 10 percent across-the-board pay cut for state workers, a contribution to state revenues that he demanded of no other workers. “And that’s not all that painful, quite frankly,” he said.
Police officers, firefighters and teachers at least have a place in culture and folklore. Administrative workers are another matter. How many movies have been made about the contributions to society of paper shufflers, those drones who sit at desks or do field work, drawing paychecks for doing little, as the stereotype would have it?
But these are the people who make sure that members of the public get a gallon of gas from commercial pumps when they pay for it, that the state trademarks of Nevada businesses are filed and preserved, that the blind and disabled receive public assistance, that abused children are protected, that something is done about dangerous abandoned mine shafts, that various commercial facilities are not health threats, that real estate and insurance businesses treat the public fairly, that public utilities do not gouge the public. As Illinois columnist Rich Miller wrote when that state’s legislature was bashing public workers, “But how many workers in the ‘private sector’ are paid to run into burning buildings to see if there might possibly be homeless people inside? Too often, these workers have been dismissed this year as little more than parasites. The truth is, many do the jobs that you or I would not or could not do, for any wage. Would the four financially well-off leaders of the Illinois General Assembly … clean up the blood spilled on a hospital emergency room floor at 3 a.m.?”
Government bureaucracies in Nevada are smaller than anywhere else in the nation. There are fewer public workers per capita than in any other state—and that was true before the recession and recession-related layoffs. The number of public workers has been declining in Nevada for many years and recently the demand for them has been rising. Many government tasks especially need doing when times are hard. “Demand for public services goes up in a recession,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval’s aide Dale Erquiaga in July.
“When times are tough, business loses customers,” said Gov. Richard Bryan in 1983. “When times are hard, government gains customers, and they are customers who cannot take their business elsewhere!”
As the public’s demand on government services have grown, and Nevada’s number of public workers has shrunk, those who remained in public service found themselves working harder. Workplaces have become more tense, particularly in this climate of worker-bashing.
The politics of work
Though the stereotype promoted by business depicts a close alliance between the Democratic Party and government workers, in fact under the modern Party with its heavy corporate funding, Democrats are as likely to bash workers as embrace them because it is a way to show independence from special interests. Certainly, Democrats are not the advocates of public workers they once were.
In the mid-1990s state workers were mostly represented by a union called the State of Nevada Employees Association (SNEA), which prided itself on its independence and lack of national union affiliation. Democratic Gov. Robert Miller provoked a fight with SNEA and encouraged Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to come into Nevada and compete with SNEA. SNEA then was forced, in its own defense, to affiliate with another national union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). When the dust settled SEIU was defeated and withdrew. Nothing had been accomplished except that Miller made points with voters for being anti-union, and AFSCME eventually deleted the local name of the union.
In 2010, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor of Nevada were critics of public pensions. Workers had no advocate in the race, though candidates Rory Reid and Brian Sandoval at least were willing to criticize the system without belittling public workers.
Nor is the press normally helpful to workers. During one joint appearance of Reid and Sandoval last year, a reporter’s question was framed this way: “Public employee compensation is like the 800-pound gorilla in the room when you're talking about Nevada's financial stability. Most experts agree that it has become a public finance crisis. Are you willing to lead the way on comprehensive reform on public employee retirement and health benefits?” The question postulated as fact a premise that is actually subject to debate and described anti-worker stances as “reform.”
There is a lot of meansprirtedness and free floating anger in this society, and business and conservatives work hard to channel it against public workers.
Kenny Guinn, Nevada’s governor from 1999 to 2007, both a public employee and a private sector executive, and he did not approve of the vitriol aimed at public workers.
“In state government, we have some very dedicated people who want very much to serve and protect our citizens,” he said. “They sit at old desks, on squeaky chairs, work in poorly heated buildings with outdated equipment. … These agencies truly have only one goal: to better serve the public and to request the funds they feel they need to accomplish that goal.”
At Oklahoma City in 1995, almost a hundred people died, virtually all of them public workers.
One decade ago, on September. 11, more than 600 public workers lost their lives, most of them while they were trying to protect or rescue others. That tragedy was a setback to the effort of business and reactionaries in their effort to demonize the public’s workers. The recession has been an opportunity for them to make up lost ground.
We would all be better off if politicians would criticize with less vitriol, if members of the public would not believe everything they read, if reporters would subject all information—including conventional wisdom—to the same scrutiny.