From the perspective of Labor Day 2006, employment and wage trends in New York since the beginning of this decade could be described as a tale of two sectors: private and public.
While private payrolls throughout the state have yet to get back to their 2000 pre-recession peak, New York has more public-sector workers than ever. In the Syracuse region, for example, private-sector employment is down 6 percent but government employment has risen 6.7 percent in the last six years.
The bulk of the public-sector job increase has been at the local level in school districts, counties, cities, towns and villages.
Government jobs are not only virtually recession-proof, but on average they also pay more. In 51 out of 62 counties, government workers collect higher average salaries than private-sector employees.
Where the manufacturing sector is still relatively large, as in Oswego County, private salaries still exceed the average for state and local government. But in nearby Cortland County, which has lost more of its manufacturing job base, state and local salaries exceed private averages by 32 percent. (In Onondaga County, the average pay for both sectors is roughly equal, with the public sector only slightly ahead.)
Of course, wages and salaries are only part of the story. From vacation time to pensions, public employees generally have a cushier deal than their private-sector counterparts. When times are tough and sometimes even when they aren't elected officials prefer to balance budgets by offering their senior workers even bigger pensions as an incentive to retire.
Just over 2 million New York state workers are union members, and fully half of them work in the public sector. One out of every eight workers in the Empire State is a unionized government employee while in the rest of the country, the ratio is roughly one out of 19 workers. And an increasing share of private-sector union membership in New York is composed of workers employed in heavily government-subsidized industries, such as health care.
It should gowithout saying that public servants providing essential public services need to be fairly compensated. But government workers increasingly look like a favored class in New York. They are more numerous than ever, economically more secure and generally better compensated than private-sector workers.
Meanwhile, the state Legislature continues to pass bills to prevent any reform of costly public workers' benefits and to further strengthen the hand of public employee unions in their contract negotiations with local governments.
State officials need to work harder to create a climate in which private-sector workers can do better.