Are public workers overpaid? Are their entitlements too cushy, their retirements too rich? How do they compare in overall compensation with their private sector peers?
Those questions are front-and-center now in the political war being waged in Madison, Wisc., and in such cash-strapped states as California, Illinois and New York. Recent days have seen one set of protesters—public employees fighting to hang onto pay and benefits—countered by another set brandishing signs demanding public workers get smaller pensions and agree to give-backs ("Pay Your Fair Share!").
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says that government workers are the "haves" and the taxpayers are increasingly the "have nots."
Over in Milwaukee, at the University of Wisconsin, economics professor Keith Bender is watching the struggle with professional interest. Bender is co-author of a report released in April titled, "Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation Over 20 Years."
He and professor John Heywood found that wages and salaries of state and local employees are lower than for private sector workers of equal education, and further, that for the past 20 years those earnings have been in relative decline. Factoring in benefits including pensions, which in the public sector comprise a greater share of compensation, doesn't change that picture: state and local workers still have lower total compensation. Compensation for state employees, the report finds, is on average 6.8 percent lower than that earned by comparable private sector employees.
So, why has the idea gained currency that public workers are overpaid?
It's because, says Bender, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows public sector workers making more. The problem there, he says, is that the BLS isn't comparing apples and apples—it doesn't take into account workers' level of education, which tends to be higher in the public sector. Adjust for education level, says Bender, and you find public workers underpaid.
Andrew Biggs, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, faults the Wisconsin study for not taking into account some of the important non-cash benefits public sector workers enjoy, such as much better job security. He and Jason Richwine, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, estimate that in California, for example, a public worker's better job security equates to a 15 percent increase in compensation.
Whether or not public workers are overpaid, states facing budget crises are looking to save money any way they can, including paying public workers less, either by reducing pay, reducing pension benefits, or both. In extreme cases, public workers have woken up to find their pensions gone. Prichard, Alabama, for example, hasn't paid its retired public workers their benefits for over a year.
Private sector retirees, of course, already know how it feels to lose a pension or to see expected benefits reduced. Workers by the tens of thousands in the auto industry, in steel, and in airlines, have lost promised benefits when their employers declared bankruptcy.
Elaine Hofius worked 22 years for GM and then, after GM spun off part of its component-making operations as Delphi Corporation, another 10 years for Delphi. She retired from Delphi in 2008, expecting to enjoy the retirement that had been promised her.
She didn't get it.