Around the Country with Public Sector Unions

It’s often a sign that a problem is turning into a crisis when the public outcry over it becomes ubiquitous. That seems to be the case with the stress that government employee compensation is placing on government budgets at all levels, as several news items today indicate.

In a front-page story, USA Today reports that federal employees earn far above their private sector counterparts, and that gap has widened considerably in recent years.

Federal workers have been awarded bigger average pay and benefit increases than private employees for nine years in a row. The compensation gap between federal and private workers has doubled in the past decade.

Federal civil servants earned average pay and benefits of $123,049 in 2009 while private workers made $61,051 in total compensation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The data are the latest available.

The federal compensation advantage has grown from $30,415 in 2000 to $61,998 last year.

Public employee unions say the compensation gap reflects the increasingly high level of skill and education required for most federal jobs and the government contracting out lower-paid jobs to the private sector in recent years.

However, as Reason‘s Nick Gillespie rightly notes, such touting of government employees’ education credentials “probably reflects credentialism run amok as a demonstrated need for specialized skills.”

Moreover, higher salaries are just the beginning. In addition to generous benefits, many government workers enjoy retirement benefits that most private sector workers can only dream of. Negotiated as part of collective bargaining agreements, lavish pensions allow union-friendly politicians to keep their organized labor supporters happy, while they get to kick the can down the road to their successors — when the bill comes due, it becomes the new office holders’ problem.

And how lavish can those pensions get? Take the city of Bell, California,  where, The Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial, “City Manager Robert Rizzo stepped down after news broke that he was making $800,000 a year to oversee the blue-collar town of 40,000.”  And he’s just the tip of the iceberg.

According to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonprofit that advocates pension reform, Mr. Rizzo is hardly alone. The foundation lists 9,111 retired California government workers receiving pensions in excess of $100,000 a year. The top earner, one Bruce Malkenhorst, receives $510,000 a year for his tenure as city administrator of Vernon, California (population, 91). Not including health benefits.

These paydays are the inevitable result of the dominance of government unions in city and state politics. While most private workers have 401(k)-type plans that rise and fall in value with economic growth, unions negotiate guaranteed payouts that stay lucrative whether or not the cities can afford them. California Attorney General Jerry Brown is investigating the Bell episode, but he’d enhance his chances to become the next Governor if he proposed more ambitious pension reform.

That is bad enough, but making that situation even worse is the fact that those same politicians who negotiated those generous pensions have neglected to adequately fund them, while setting up rules that could be gamed to increase payouts — sometimes even beyond retirees’ former salaries. Now those states face huge financial shortfalls, which underfunded pension obligations are making far worse. As the Mercatus Center’s Eileen Norcross and Todd Zywicki note in The New York Daily News:

At 44, Hugo Tassone retired from the Yonkers police force with an annual pension of $101,333 – thanks to overtime pay he tacked on to his $74,000 salary. Tassone told The New York Times it was the pension he could collect after 20 years of service that attracted him to the job in the first place.

He’s not alone. In the last decade, half of the police and firefighters who retired in Yonkers collected pensions that exceeded their base pay, in (at least one case) by as much as 75%.

Don’t blame the officers. New York’s pension rules make it pay more to retire than to work.


But loopholes and gamesmanship aren’t the only reason why public pension systems nationwide face massive funding shortfalls. They are the result of a perfect storm of flawed accounting, which fueled unrealistic employee demands that were then underfunded by politicians. In plans across the country, during booming years of the late 1990s, many workers were promised retirement payouts that were “too good to be true” and, thus, impossible to make good on.

New York’s budget situation is bad. In California, it’s reached a point that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calls “unsustainable.” He lays out the numbers in a Los Angeles Times op ed:

We have $500 billion in government-employee pension debt alone, a mind-numbing figure that is six times the size of our entire state budget and 10 times the amount we spend on education.


We must also reform California’s pension system for government employees, whose costs to taxpayers for just one of our major pension funds have skyrocketed from $150 million a year a decade ago to almost $4 billion this year. Private-sector workers already struggle to pay for their own retirement. Now they are being forced to pay more and more for the government workers’ retirement, at the very time their own retirement accounts have declined. What is worse, in five years those pension costs will grow to well over $10 billion per year, and keep growing from there.

Fixing this will not be easy, but public attention turning to this crisis is a welcome first step.

For more on public sector unions, see here and here.