I, Public Employee

In light of the demonstrations by teachers and union supporters in Wisconsin, public employees and their compensation have become hot topics in America.  Depending on where one sits, public employees can be anything from dedicated servants of the common good to recently-activated members of Soviet sleeper cells, dispatched into the streets to bring down the Republic. 

As always, between the hyperbolic extremes we find a more nuanced truth.   Have I gotten your attention with the preceding paragraph?  My name is Matt, and I'm a public employee.  I work for a city on the Central Coast of California.  I'm also an independent conservative, NRA member, Army National Guardsman, and veteran of Afghanistan.  I've been observing the debate over public employees, and I've decided to add my thoughts. 

Government employees range from federal employees to state-level workers and on down to county and city employees.  I'm an employee of a city of 43,000 between L.A. and San Francisco.  I've worked there seven years now in the Public Works department.  I applied for the job for stability, and to participate in a pension program.  I'm part of a bargaining unit, which could be called a union, although it is strictly local, has no national affiliation and cannot call a strike.  I have no choice about joining although I can pay slightly less and not vote on pending contracts.  What I cannot do is to opt out and negotiate my own contract; I checked.  The city doesn't want to negotiate scores of individual contracts, they want to get people with similar job classifications in a unit and deal with them en masse.  So, like it or not, I have to join, and if I'm going to pay I feel I should actually vote.

What about pay?   Do I make twice the average income for my area?   No, I do not.  According to a study by the National Association of Homebuilders, the median income for my county is $72,500.  I make less than that, even factoring in my National Guard drill pay as a sergeant (E5).   The median home price in this county in the second quarter of 2010 was $359,000.   The only way I was able to buy a home in was by using my VA loan, and only the crash brought prices down enough to enable me to get my family out of an apartment and into a house.  

My specific job is in Parks Maintenance.  I'm one of the people you see with the ill-fitting green trousers and the shirt with the dorky name tag.   I earn my pay by keeping the parks of my city clean and safe for the citizens who pay for them and use them.  Currently I manage a sports field facility with over ten acres of turf.  When I used to work downtown, I dealt with the homeless.   Picture anything that comes out of a human body and I've cleaned it up.   Try cleaning up after the guy with no legs who soiled himself and then spent the night sleeping in the wood chips of the children's playground area.  Feces, urine, blood, sputum, vomit, used condoms, broken glass, dog bites, abusive homeless screaming and threatening me; I've dealt with it all.  And when I have a young mother thank me for the cleanliness and safety of the playground, it's actually worth it. 

I make decent money now; below the median for this area, but it's certainly a good middle class income.  My pension, if I ever get it, will be through CalPERS, the pension giant of this state and indeed the U.S.  There are different formulations used by different agencies in California, but I'm under what's called 2.7% at 55.  This means that one is eligible to retire beginning at age 55, and the years of service are then multiplied by 2.7.  So yes, I could get over 80% of my salary as pension, but only after 30 years or more.  That's thirty-plus years of physical labor punctuated by dog bites and piles of human feces.  CalPERS spends most of its money for police and fire.  Their formulation is 3% at 50. 

While I like many of these folks personally, the reality is that they account for most of any city's staffing costs.  In my city, police and fire personnel account for 32% of the workforce while racking up 70% of the staffing costs.  Yes, they perform a vital function, but do firefighters really need monogrammed towels in the stationhouse?   I got a plain brown towel from the Army.  The police get paid for donning and doffing their uniforms.  I get ten minutes at the end of the day to change back into street clothes.  I don't get paid for putting on my uniform at home. Incidentally, police and fire departments have powerful national unions.  That's why they get just about everything they want.  I like them, and they do valuable work, but they suck up a lot of fiscal oxygen. 

And, finally, CalPERS is currently worth about $200 billion; where is that money going if not to help cover pensions?  I and every other person I work with realize that we are in a new time, and we are more than willing to make concessions.  I'm personally willing to contribute more to my pension, as well as take a pay cut.  What I have a real problem with is the popular notion that I and my colleagues don't actually do anything to earn our pay.  The work I do is skilled work; I don't have space to talk about the annual turf renovation, spreading 200 yards of sand/mulch mix, maintaining an expensive computerized irrigation system with dozens of valves and hundreds of heads, dealing with a Federally-administered riparian reclamation area within the park, etc. 

When times were good, and everyone was making tons of money, there was a palpable sense of condescension towards us uniformed guys cleaning up the parks.  Now, many folks have lost their jobs and can't service two or three mortgages while I still have a job.   At this point we're all in a lifeboat; we look around at our fellows and they start looking like chicken drumsticks.  Things are unsettled, and everyone is on edge.  The human tendency is to start looking for someone to blame. 

Well, folks, I've been holding up my end of the bargain, and I'm willing to make concessions to changed circumstances.  But don't tell me I'm the sole source of the problem.  Depending on whether I'm in my city uniform or my Army uniform, different Americans love or hate me, but I'm still the same guy.  I'll clean up the biohazards in the park before your family gets there, then I'll leave my family for a year to go have Type 63 rockets shot at me while I defend you abroad. 

Everyone needs to take a step back and calm down.  I'm not excusing the actions of national unions like SEIU (I detest them) but not every public employee is a hard-left ideologue.  Mostly, we're regular folks doing a job and supporting our families. I hope this bit of insider's perspective is useful to AT readers, and thank you for letting me vent. 
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