Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Public-sector workers aren’t the problem

John Burbank, Executive Director

My neighbor down the street is a firefighter. Another is a school librarian. A third is a professor at Shoreline Community College. The husband and wife team across from us are public school teachers.

These friends and neighbors are all public servants — that is, public employees. It is easy to join the chorus in denouncing faceless public employees. But they are not faceless. They are our friends and neighbors and family. They are us.

Public employees protected Western Washington during the past week of heavy rain and flooding. At a trailer park outside Monroe, Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies — public employees — went door to door to warn people about the rising rivers. We lost one public employee over the weekend, a 12-year veteran of the state Department of Transportation. Sunday evening Bill Rhynalds volunteered to work extra to close roads and clear water. He was setting up traffic cones when a cottonwood tree fell, killing him.

Some public employees we recognize as national heroes, especially those in Arizona who helped save the lives of shooting victims in the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords. Others we don’t see. But they are people we rely on every day — to guard our public safety, teach our kids and make sure we can get to where we need to go.

Without these public servants, we would have the law of the jungle, unsafe for any of us, with no safe common ground to do business, make money, learn or work. So we are treading on very thin ice with the casual and systematic denunciation of public employees. It is time we stopped, looked around, and reconsidered that public employees are not our enemies, but our friends, in many cases ourselves.

Are these public servants paid too much? Let’s look at some actual numbers, starting with snow plow drivers. According to the Seattle Times database, the typical state truck driver makes about $18 an hour. That’s a little less than $38,000 a year, full-time. How does that compare to the typical private sector driver? He (or she) makes about $20 an hour, about $4,000 more per year for full-time work.

Home health care workers make about $10.50 an hour. Their wages are frozen for five years. What do these public employees do? They take care of the people whose disabilities have overwhelmed them. Some have dementia, some are quadriplegics, some need bathing, attention, and someone to make sure they take their medicines. These vulnerable citizens are cared for by the most vulnerable workers in our state. At $21,000 a year, their compensation puts them at the doorstep of poverty.

How about full-time professors at Everett Community College, the people in charge of job re-training for adults who have been tossed out of their jobs in the Great Recession? These teachers take all comers. They provide intensive academic remediation for people who left high school missing the basics of reading, writing and mathematics. These professors are responsible for preparing citizens for work in the global economy, from aerospace mechanics to computer-aided design to dental hygiene. The typical salary for a full-time professor with a Ph.D.? Right around $50,000 a year.

But really, this is the wrong tack to take. Wall Street took down the private sector economy. Now they are sitting pretty, with million-dollar bonuses, after the taxpayers bailed them out with literally trillions of dollars. But the economy hasn’t recovered, and tax receipts are way down. So the same folks on Wall Street want to take down the public sector, now that they have run away with all the golden apples.

A close look at public employment is a close look at what we could have in the private sector — a robust middle class. Entry level public employees tend to get paid more than entry-level private employees, while top level public employees get paid a lot less than they would get in the private sector. The Bureau of Economic Analysis calculated that Washington state employees earned an average $54,079 in 2007, including employer contributions to retirement plans and health insurance.

So when we start to attack public employees, we are attacking the middle class. That is a recipe to extend this Great Recession. What we need is the gumption to close corporate tax favors, such as the $110 million loophole that sends our money out of state to Wall Street banks. Those are the institutions that brought us the Great Recession. Those are the ones who should pay.

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