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Democrat and Chronicle


N.Y. Public Workers Thrived Amid Misery

March 21, 2010

By Lise Bang-Jensen, E. J. McMahon

Far from being asked to sacrifice during the "Great Recession" that began in December 2007, the data indicate that state and local government workers thrived amid the economic misery afflicting most taxpayers.

Since December 2007, the private sector in the Rochester region has shed 16,500 jobs, while the state and local government sector added 2,300 jobs — most in public schools, according to the state Labor Department.

The average wage among Rochester-area private sector employees rose just 2.5 percent during the most recent two-year period for which data are available (second quarter of 2007 through second quarter of 2009). The average wage for the region's state and local government sector rose a whopping 11 percent during that period.

Wages are only part of the story.

Based on an analysis of health costs, paid time off and other fringe benefits for some 24,000 local government and school employees covered by 94 union contracts in Monroe County, the Center for Governmental Research found taxpayers fund health and paid time-off benefits that typically exceed national averages. Monroe County taxpayers would save $40 million annually if local government and school employees contributed to their current health benefits at the average national rate, CGR estimated. While private employers have taken the huge step of suspending contributions to employee retirement accounts, the cost of generous guaranteed pensions for state and local workers are poised to skyrocket over the next few years.

Unlike public employees in New York, government workers elsewhere have made contract concessions to avoid layoffs. In Connecticut, state workers agreed to a one-year wage freeze, seven unpaid furlough days and higher employee health insurance contributions. In New Jersey, civilian workers agreed to 10 unpaid furlough days and deferral of a cost-of-living increase; state police and corrections employees opted for a one-year wage freeze.

With scattered exceptions, public employee unions here in New York have rejected pleas for wage and benefit concessions. However, Albany could control these costs, at least temporarily. The governor and the Legislature could impose an emergency freeze on state and local government salaries for the next three years. A freeze for state salaries would save $2 billion over three years. This would provide breathing room to restructure and reform government. Unfortunately, the state capital seems locked in paralysis at the moment.

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