Archive for March, 2011

Public vs. private pay is volatile debate

March 4, 2011

On The Circle is moving to the new Cape Gazette website at

When times are good, most people are not paying much attention to how much their civil servants are paid. But when times are not that good, every dollar spent by all levels of government comes under close scrutiny.

All of those dollars come from taxpayers who may be struggling to make ends meet. When taxpayers discover that public employees are being well paid and receive better benefits than they have, the wheels are set in motion for questioning and debate.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that many states with significant numbers of unionized public employees are also in the process of raising taxes substantially to cover pension funds and other employee-related costs. It doesn’t help that unionized workers in Wisconsin are striking and protesting in the wake of legislation to take away their bargaining rights.

The public is asking who represents them. Many private sector workers have watched their monthly income decrease with fewer raises and more out-of-pocket costs to cover health care expenses.

Union membership, especially among the public sector, is still a factor in this country. There are almost 15 million union workers; 7.6 million are in the public sector. Most are teachers, police and firefighters.*

There is no doubt collective bargaining pays off for union workers. In 2010, full-time union workers had median weekly earnings of $917 compared to $717 for nonunion workers.*

No Sussex County employees are unionized. From time to time union talk arises, but it’s quickly squashed.

Slowly but surely, government has become the top employer in the state. Sussex County, with more than 500 employees, is also among the top employers in the county. Although our property taxes are low, it’s amazing to see that most of the county’s $47 million operating budget goes to employment costs – salaries and benefits.

Sussex County workers have traditionally been underpaid by most standards, yet their benefit package is a good one that includes minor employee contributions to health insurance – including dental and vision – and a pension plan with no employee contributions. Among the other benefits county employees receive include life insurance, 15 paid holidays, long-term disability and 15 paid sick days.

It’s a pretty good package that most workers in the private sector do not have.

The private vs. public numbers add to a debate over pay and benefits, which is like a ticking time bomb in a tough economy.

*U.S. Department of Labor statistics