Baltimore’s utility workers are in hot water for loafing on the clock. That brings back a few memories.
One summer during college in the early 1990s, I landed a cushy job reading residential water meters for the local utility. The pay was excellent—thank you, taxpayers—and I enjoyed working outdoors in the warm weather. But what made the job so memorable was the minimal work requirements.
Each morning after we’d punched in and donned our uniforms, a half-dozen of us summer hires—mostly college kids like me who had gotten the job via our parents’ connections—would pile into a utility van. Waiting behind the wheel was a genial old-timer named Hank, who drove us to the assigned neighborhood, where we would walk house-to-house recording the meter readings. Once we finished our routes, Hank told us that first morning, the rest of the day was ours. Typically, it took only about two hours.
The upshot was that we spent most of the summer devising creative ways to kill entire afternoons, and not a few late mornings. We’d read, nap, hit the beach, shoot hoops, catch a movie, play videogames and engage in various other activities that I’m almost certain fell outside the job description for a water-meter reader. After we’d decided on a plan, Hank would drop us off and disappear until it was time to return the van to the dispatcher and punch out for the day. My recollection is that no one on my crew ever asked questions or feared getting caught. And the summer workers on other crews, we eventually learned, were up to the same antics.
When I told my father what was going on, he just laughed and recounted the old joke about why government employees don’t look out the window in the morning. (So they’ll have something to do in the afternoon.) For a summer, it felt like I was living the punch line. The real joke, though, is on the local taxpayers, who fund all the featherbedding. And that joke never gets old.
Last week, Baltimore’s inspector general revealed that over a 20-month period, city meter readers earned $120,000 while loafing on the clock. “For over a year, Baltimore’s water meter readers would get a list of jobs at the beginning of their shifts,” the Baltimore Sun reported. “When they were done, workers either drove around aimlessly or went home instead of getting more work to do.” Investigators used GPS records from work vehicles to catch the errant employees, but their behavior was an open secret among supervisors. As the Sun explained: “Investigators learned that Department of Public Works, which employed the meter readers, had an unofficial policy condoning the practice.”
Yes, $120,000 is chump change in a city the size of Baltimore, which passed a $2.8 billion budget earlier this month. But you’d be a fool to think that meter readers in Baltimore are the only public employees gaming the system. New York City’s new $89 billion budget—larger than those of most states—is up 19% since Bill de Blasio, the spendthrift progressive mayor, took office in 2014. “A significant contributor to that growth,” the New York Times noted recently, “has been the steep increase in the number of city workers, making the city’s payroll and headcount, with about 300,000 workers, the highest it’s ever been.”
State and local governments currently employ more than 19 million people, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a percentage of the civilian workforce, however, they have been shrinking steadily since the end of the Great Recession, while private-sector hiring has been increasing. If you want less government spending, along with a more efficient and productive public workforce, you welcome this trend.
In government, where there is no profit motive and agencies tend to be monopolies, a bloated workforce can help politicians win votes and placate special-interest groups, such as labor unions. Whether hiring more people makes sense economically is often an afterthought for a mayor or governor. Private employers, held accountable by shareholders and the need to remain competitive, don’t have the same luxury. Cities like Baltimore and New York continue to spend more money to hire more workers to perform more tasks, even though neither city is experiencing explosive population growth.
If Target operated this way, rivals would eat its lunch. Yet city officials in Baltimore can simply apologize, promise to do better, and then move on. Even the meter readers probably won’t face serious consequences. Prosecutors had considered bringing charges but eventually decided not to, the Sun reported, “because the workers appeared to have the approval of the department.” Ah, the memories.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal
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