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Benefitting the Common Good by Bolstering Our Human Capital

The roots of the public service crisis gripping communities across the nation run deep and sprouted more than a decade ago. Lyle Scruggs (in photo, above), a member of our affiliated UConn-AAUP, unearthed the seeds of short-staffing in state agencies in a recently published commentary. A professor of political science at the University of Connecticut (UConn), he connected policy decisions stunting growth and germinating an “outfit that pays less, has fewer benefits and now has 22% fewer workers:”

Connecticut is increasingly looking like a red state in the South. Yes, women have reproductive choice; we teach children that slavery was bad; and that climate change is real. But anti-government sentiment is in full force.

Consider this:

  • There are about 14,000 fewer full-time state employees today than 15 years ago, a reduction of 22% since 2008;
  • Since 2020, general wage increases for state employees have been 10% less than inflation: a huge pay cut (that was preceded by a decade of real salary stagnation); &
  • Current state workers have experienced large cuts in fringe benefits over the last decade (they receive less generous pensions and benefits and pay more for them).

Click here for reporting on the 2022 wave of retirements impacting the state workforce.

But don’t state workers get a raise just about every year? No. General wage increases were approved in the current contract and agreed on in the middle of the COVID pandemic. But they fall far short of rising prices. For 2021, 2022, 2023, pay increases for your state social workers, nurses, engineers, and teachers cumulatively amount to less than 7.8%.

Anyone living on a budget knows that all this amounts to a huge pay cut. Why? Inflation in that period was 18.4%. And by the next scheduled contractual salary increase (July 1, 2024), prices will be higher still. Remember: “lower inflation” means slower increases in prices: jogging uphill is not sprinting uphill, but you are still going up every year. Since the start of Fiscal Year (FY) 2024, prices are now up 0.9%. At that pace, inflation will be 3.7% this fiscal year, which is consistent with current inflation forecasts.

What has the state penciled into the budget for that next COVID contract raise: 2.5%! That’s right, after probably the largest set of real pay cuts in state history, the governor is proposing another real pay cut. That would bring the cuts during the COVID era – for the nurses, health aids, social workers, teachers, transportation employees, and law enforcement officials – to more than 12%. Some thanks for that service during the COVID pandemic.

It is actually even worse than that. In the decade before COVID – going back to the Great Recession – state workers also took real pay cuts and benefit reductions. A career nurse or prosecutor working the same job over the last 15 years has actually had a real pay cut of about 14%, not just 12%.

Click here for our report-back on the contracts state employee union members secured in 2022.

Didn’t we all take real pay cuts because of inflation? Well, no. Wages in the private sector in the state have caught up with inflation according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Total salaries in Connecticut increased by 26% between June 2020 and June 2023. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a real increase of about 7%.

State workers should share in state economic gains, especially during the COVID era. They should not be exploited by reducing their purchasing power. Aren’t they unionized?

Even retirees saw much larger benefit increases than our state’s employees. Connecticut’s 700,000 Social Security recipients received (or will soon receive) pension cost of living adjustments (COLAs) raising their pensions by more than 20% between January 2021 and January 2024. Surely the state caregivers working to help your developmentally disabled cousin deserve at least the same cost of living adjustments as retirees, not half that rate.

Click here for analysis of the growing private-public sector pay gap.

Can the state afford it? The state has been touting surpluses for years. Real income is up and has been since before COVID. The stock market has boomed; up 35% compared to the pre-COVID high, and over 300% since 2008. The governor’s budget people know how inflation works on budgets, especially when it is combined with economic growth and declining public employment. They also should also know that, just as the private sector must raise salaries to keep up with inflation, the public sector should (needs to) do the same.

If pay had kept up with inflation, state surpluses would still be there. With a little more money in state employees’ pockets, the state economy would also have been even a bit more robust.

Click here for recent reporting on the unprecedented health of Connecticut’s coffers.

But don’t state benefits compensate for those real wage cuts? No. Those “generous” state benefits ended over a decade ago. Today, state employees pay much more (from depleted paychecks) for fringe benefits than they used to. And the benefits are less generous: higher effective retirement age, trimming pensionable salary, lower COLA for state pensions, pre-funding retirement health care and greater participation in defined contribution plans.
Pay attention and understand this as well: “better benefits” were supposed to permit the state to pay lower salaries for similar talent. Remember: many state workers are skilled tradespeople, licensed care providers, engineers, and lawyers; many of these folks could earn higher pay and benefits in the private sector.

There used to be an understanding: if you choose public service and earn less, you will be taken care of in your healthcare and retirement. No more! Now public jobs struggle to attract enough talented people. Teachers are leaving the state. And many state employees are looked down on. Why work for an outfit that pays less, has fewer benefits and now has 22% fewer workers? Why work in a state where you are looked down on?

Click here for our latest report on national union efforts to tackle public sector short-staffing across the country.

Do the math. Compared to a decade ago, Connecticut is now asking teachers, police and public health workers to do about 30% more work for about 15% less real compensation, while clawing back more of that lower pay to provide less generous benefits. All while the citizens of this state have generally gotten richer. That’s more befitting “Make America Great Again” states like Florida and South Carolina, not Connecticut.

Fortunately, the governor and the Connecticut General Assembly (CGA) can take a big step to solve this problem: raise general salary scales 15% on July 1, 2024. This would return state worker pay scales back into line with their pre-COVID levels, and would at least ensure that state worker pay keeps up with inflation as well as retiree pensions did. It may seem large, but it is modest and affordable: a 0% real wage increase over 15 years.

Click here for Scruggs’ original published commentary in CT Viewpoints.

Matt O'Connor
Matt O'Connorhttp://aftct.org
Communications Coordinator for AFT Connecticut, a labor federation of over 30,000 hard-working women and men in the Nutmeg State.
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