Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Some thoughts on Pensions and Benefits

I'm sure by now just about everyone has heard about the "landmark pension and benefits bill passed with bi-partisan support in New Jersey." I've had a few days to mourn the loss, assess the situation, while maintaining some anger over the injustice of it all. As a special education teacher, I have been taught, "What is equal is not what is just." They say this to us to remind us to treat every student as an individual with their own set of expectations. Everyone lives within their own set of circumstances, and we need to work in, with and around them.

The new debate has opened as chasm between private and public. Here were some comments I recently read after an article on the how these new bills will effect the workers and economy of the state

Licorice2258 says:
Employees that are paid by the taxpayers are no different than employees of the private sector and should not be treated differently. No one seems to get upset when companies decide they want a bigger bottom line and decide to outsource jobs to other states or countries which leaves many unemployed. Or when revenue is down and raises are ignored for a couple years while the cost of benefits rise. While this is going on upper management is living like there isn't a problem at all.
Sorry to have sympathy for employees of the state while they are crying like babies who need a diaper change. You all are probably the only people who can afford to live in this state along side our politicians. And the ones who live out of state - you are ripping us off since you don't spend your money here.

 Some responses were excellent:

NJDMS says:"Employees that are paid by the taxpayers are no different than employees of the private sector and should not be treated differently."
You are 100% right! And that is public sector employees' opinion as well.
You also say that no one seems to get upset when private sector "revenue is down and raises are ignored for a couple years while the cost of benefits rise."
The key word there is that raises are ignored for a COUPLE of years while the cost of benefits rise. That is also public employees' point as well. Nobody has written any laws that say bankers' will no longer get raises ever again just because times are currently tough. Laws have been written now that will restrict raises for public employees FOREVER. Public employees will now watch the cost of their pension and health benefits rise permanently, while their raises are now permanently capped in the ballpark of 2%....which is lower than cost of living increase.
The point is, a lot of teachers and public workers in general wouldn't mind making short term sacrifices like what private sector workers make. Perhaps Christie could have required all teachers to take a pay freeze in their next 3-year contract (not permanently), but then drop or re-evaluate the cuts for the following 3-year contract based on the economy at that time. Or maybe if there was an exit clause, such as raises will increase when stocks rise a certain amount or unemployment drops a certain amount, or make SOME KIND of benchmark that will end these cuts at SOME POINT. But no. These changes were made to be permanent. At least if you're a banker...yeah...you might not get a raise for a few years because times are tough. But, guess what. When the company starts doing well again, raises and perks come back. That is now NOT the case with teachers and other public workers. There is no way out and up for them now....regardless of what happens with the economy.

So, if you're saying that, "Employees that are paid by the taxpayers are no different than employees of the private sector and should not be treated differently," then let's do it! Let's write some laws that say private sector workers will now permanently watch their take home pay get lower lower and lower, because we're going to write laws that restrict their raises to very small % increases, while we also increase their health care payments and retirement fund payments to a much larger %. And while we're at it, they can no longer have 401Ks matched by their employers. They will have pensions, and the government can either choose to contribute to it, choose not to contribute to it, or simply gamble their retirement money away as they please. When their raises get smaller and smaller, permanently NOT accounting for the increases in cost of living, while the money that is taken from their pay checks gets bigger and bigger, that's when it will be fair. So, let's do it! Let's write these laws so that private and public workers won't be treated differently, just as you have suggested! I'm all for it!

Another response I liked was by RememberHistory:

OK..let's counterpoint, one by one...
1. Public employees have a pension because they bargained for one; private sector employees don't because they allowed management take it away. Twenty years ago, most corporations did indeed offer a pension; in fact many still do, a dirty little secret that doesn't seem to get publicized much. Now, here's the problem: let's say the Governor wants to end pensions forever and instead set up 401K's like private firms. Unfortunately, that can't be done because he, like his predecessors, refused to make the necessary and contractually obligated payments that would have kept it healthy and fully funded. Not only that, past Governors TOOK money out of it (imagine your employer taking money out of your 401K without asking), making the situation worse.
2. I agree with your assessment - 1.5 is not enough; the current legislation corrects that and brings the contribution more into line over a four year period. Why so long? Because the private sector had a ten year phase in period where contributions began at 5% and steadily grew to the current level, all done while the economy was a bit more robust.
3. Public sector employees can indeed get healthcare coverage AFTER 25 years of service...again, that was contractually bargained for, in some cases years ago, in lieu of salary increases. The private sector used to offer the same thing; my father received health benefits from his employer after retiring until the were cancelled with little or no notice. One other note: public employees receive full health benefits after 25 years of service until they are eligible for Medicare...then they go on that.
4. Your statement is correct; public employee salaries and benefits are indeed derived from taxes. Does this mean they and the work they perform are any less important or meaningful? Does that mean they should automatically make less because the source of revenue is tax based? Remember, in the alleged "real world" out there, compensation is dictated by supply and demand...what kind of employees do you hope to attract with a lower, less attractive salary? The best? The brightest? Or merely the adequate? Does your firm deliberately hire lesser qualified personnel for positions merely to save dollars, or do they attempt to meet market demands based on experience, qualifications, and education. How do they retain good people and keep them from leaving? Again, market forces at work. Do you honestly think good teachers are going to stay in the educational field watching their real compensation diminish year after year? Would you?
5. You make an excellent point about the 99% who aren't Wall Street bankers...so why not acknowledge that much of the rhetoric being thrown around here focuses on the small minority of boat checks, double dippers, and 100K police officers. Do you really believe that represents the VAST majority of public sector workers? If so, then I think you're all Wall Street bankers. 

I think these comments show the kinds of statements being made on both sides. Here's my two cents. If you want to treat me like a private sector worker, then pay me like a private sector worker. Professionals in the private sector with equivalent education and experience are making considerably more a year than their public sector counterparts, especially teachers. See here for details.

"U.S. census data shows that annual pay for teachers has fallen drastically over the past 60 years when compared to the annual pay of other workers with college degrees. According to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average national starting salary for a teacher is around $30,377. But the study showed that other college graduates entering professions that require similar training and responsibilities start at much higher salaries. For example, public accountants start at $44,668; computer programmers start at an average of $43,635; and registered nurses start at about $45,570. The average earnings of workers with at least four years of college are now more than 50% higher than the average earnings of a teacher. And in addition to starting salaries being lower, inflation has grown faster than the increases in teachers’ salaries each year. Over the past year, inflation increased 3.1%, while teachers’ salaries increased by only 2.3%."  

Here's a little anecdote for you, and it is 100% true. One of my cousin's and I graduated the same year. I with my masters in education, her with a BA in Marketing. I started at $43,500 a year. She started at $52, 000 a year. After working in my field for 9 years and earning an additional certificate, I now make $51,000 a year and she, after earning her MBA last year, is making $85,000, with full family benefits a matched 401K, and 3 weeks vacation. (so the benefits are matched fairly well). She has had ups and downs in her career. She's been laid off by big business twice in her career. My job has been more stable and I have some security with tenure. 

I've never begrudged her her success. I guess society just values marketing and people who MAKE money more than someone like myself. Though like Taylor Mali  says, I know I make a difference. Like so many teachers I say to myself, "I have the summer 'off' and I have excellent benefits. The top of the pay scale is somewhere out there off in the distance. I may not have it now, but I have a future, so it all comes out in the wash. I am content with my lot in life. 'It's not a lot, but it's my life'".

First let me explain a little something about the top of the pay scale. You don't get there until after 15-20 years of service. You also don't get that "golden fleece" pension with post-retirement benefits until after 25 years (30 under the new law) and you basically can't collect at all until after 10 years, and then it's only a small % of your last 3 year's salary with NO BENEFITS. (Unlike those in "Public service", those pesky politicians, who get full pension AND benefits after 1 TERM!!!) My kids will be in college by then. Why is it so far away? It's set up like that on purpose. " Nearly 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within five years." Therefore, they keep the bottom of the pay scale low, and those who hang in there and become the best of the best, will eventually be rewarded. Why pay somebody a high wage if they aren't going to stick it out and stay? Teachers have never been motivated by money, and those who are don't stick around long. (Which is why merit pay will never work, but that's a whole other conversation.)

Here is where I stand. Pension deductions are currently $147 per pay check for a total of about $3000 a year. Now, will be over $3800 a year or $200 per check ($50 not a big deal really). Now benefits were just over $800 a year. Now they are estimated at $3200 a year or $160 per pay check after full phase in. Total loss is $210 per check or $420 per month. It's a 8.2% annual pay cut. Can you afford that? Here's the problem. What is 8.2% for me can be over  10% for someone on the lower end of the pay scale because they are being asked to pay the same amount into their benefits. $3200 for someone making $40,000 is 8% just for benefits and another 2% for pension, so their pay cut will actually be about 10%. So the poor get more poor.  

Now here's the problem, our pay increases are capped at 2% a year (Not that I've ever gotten more than that in 9 years of service or while folks I know were getting 6% raises in the good times. "I'm not bitter," the bitter woman said) Yes people are suffering. Yes times are hard for everybody. No, I do not have a problem paying a little more. Times will get better, but while other industries will change or improve so that one day people can once again receive their 6% raises, my hopes and dreams (home ownership, sending my kids to college so they don't have $75,000 in loans to pay back) have been legislated away. There is no more hope at the end of the tunnel where the top of the pay scale looms in the distance. Inflation goes up an average of 3% a year. My pay will be cut the next four years at 6% (I'll still get my 2% raises), I will stand behind the 8 ball forever it seems. If the politicians have a say, my retirement will be gone too. Like so many other of my colleagues, as soon as I am no longer able to support my family, around the time we are in danger of loosing our rented home, I will leave the teaching profession.