What Do We Owe Public Employees?

Monday, February 15, 2010

In New York and New Jersey Governor's Paterson and Christie have highlighted the tremendous pressure pensions and public employee contracts put on the state budget. Robert Master, Northeast legislative and political director for the Communications Workers of America and EJ McMahon, senior fellow for Tax and Budgetary Studies at the Manhattan Institute and director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, discuss the state of the contract between government and public employees.


Robert Master and E.J. McMahon

Comments [43]

john from NJ

So, when unprotected public servants (non-union), did not receive pay raises for several consecutive years (and their unionized counterparts did), so that tax breaks could be delivered while politicians also kicked the can down the road regarding pension and benefits, where was this outcry that public servants were making too much? There are many public servants that did not receive raises during GOOD and BAD times, so that politicians could keep costs down, but when the rest the "private sector" did receive raises.

Mar. 05 2010 01:52 PM
Daniel from NYC

McMahon from the Manhattan Institute said as his last comment on public employee benefits that the guy from the CWA was factually wrong on everything he had just said. Could someone, including Brian, do a follow-up on this claim?

Feb. 19 2010 02:21 PM
Daniel from NYC

McMahon from the Manhattan Institute said as his last comment on public employee benefits that the guy from the CWA was factually wrong on everything he had just said. Could someone, including Brian, do a follow-up on this claim?

Feb. 19 2010 12:15 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I was actually surprised last week when I heard someone say public sector employees made more than those in the private sector. It used to be the other way around, & a lot of people looked down on those who had "public service" jobs & considered them to lack ambition. I wonder how much of the change is due to the increase in the income gap over the past few decades--have union members been relatively protected from it? Is that why public sector employees now outearn private sector employees?

Feb. 16 2010 12:50 AM
Owen from Oakland, CA

Bob Masters is right, the problem of how to pay for public employees' benefits is a problem the whole society is facing. We should fix Social Security and the healthcare system, not shred public sector benefits.

Feb. 15 2010 11:30 PM
Ben from Mt Vernon

In general the public should be grateful that some of us took civil service exams passed them and were eventually hired by federal, state and local Goverments. Those who are complaining about high wages and better benefits than those in the private sector had the choice of taking a civil service exam or working for a private company. Those in the private sector are not aware that many civil servants pay scales start very low and eventually get higher with time, promotional exams and periodic raises. The majority of public workers are living a no frills life style on their salaries. Especially in states that have a high cost of living. In the past few years NYPD had to raise the starting salaries of new recruits because they were not getting enough applicants because of the low starting salary. As a retired firefighter many of us take great personal risks to protect the public, which can never be equated in dollars. Civil service and public employees are not the problem. Overall their services are valuable and necessary.

Feb. 15 2010 09:29 PM
Lou from Brooklyn

Not all pubic employees are covered under unions. Some public employees who are salaried work past their "regular" day, take work home, get phone calls from work in the middle of the night, get phone calls from work when they take days off, get phone calls from work while on vacation, DO NOT always get cost of living adjustments. Some public employees have seen their work force cut and the existing responsibilities split up to the rest. In "good times" pubiic employees were not receiving yearly bonuses. These employees provide essential services that the public would notice if they weren't being filled. It's not just the unions. What do we owe public employees??? What is the public willing to forfeit?

Feb. 15 2010 11:54 AM
Mike from Brooklyn

Trying again with the link to NYC public employees health benefits:

Feb. 15 2010 11:35 AM
Mike from Brooklyn

Brian, McMahon is lying about public employees not paying for health care and it's not the first time I've heard someone on your show say this. Public employees have a choice between free plans that most doctors don't take, or paying a lot for regular plans. Could you please correct this on the air?

Feb. 15 2010 11:06 AM
Kim Leong from Brooklyn


only shows raw salary, not the benefits that in some cases double these figures.

Feb. 15 2010 11:03 AM
Lawrence Scott from NYC

The Manhattan Institute is a shill for business and should have been call at as such. I see no wrong in working people being paid a good wage and recieving benefits. Please someone tell why it is bad to do this. Private business would go back to salvery if they could. And 401 k plans turn out to be a big flop, a rip off, well surprise surprise. So please tell why? We are facing bankruptsy in this country because we want all the benefits (parks, police, streets, defense etc) and do not want to pay for it. But when we knock people for getting a fair wage benefits we really lose track of what America is suppose to be.

Feb. 15 2010 11:00 AM
Kim Leong from Brooklyn

Some of you people are not living in reality. Please look at this website:

This shows what each individual person is making. Look up some of the salaries people make in the civil unions around you. Look at the superintendents making 350k+, look at the garbage collectors making over 100k, (not to pick on these in particular, just look at them all!) It is sickening that people don't understand the reason their local and state taxes are soaring is not due to services going up but to these contracts that politicians help put into place to get these union votes. It's a circle that is quickly taking us into bankruptcy.

Feb. 15 2010 10:59 AM
Cynthia from long island

EJ McMahon is either badly misinformed or deliberately monkeying with the truth. In general public sector employees make significantly less than workers in the private sector. Their salaries are within set limits and top out well below six figures.

Feb. 15 2010 10:59 AM
john from upper west side

There is a functional disparity brtween the public and private sectors. The private sector is for profit! The public sector is non profit. The public work force does not have to respond to market forces. It is overly dependent on government to maintain benifits.

The The private sector is self regulating and must maintaine equilibrium. Public sector unions nagate this factor, which places an unfair burden on the tax payer.

Feb. 15 2010 10:55 AM
Kim Leong from Brooklyn

28, 29. if we had what you wanted, more jobs would be offshored. simple as that. we are now in a global economy. what you seek simply cannot exist.

Feb. 15 2010 10:54 AM
Burtnor from Manhattan

Once again, I am amazed at Brian framing an issue specifically as a Republican talking point. The problem with the question is that Republicans don't believe in the idea of any social contract. There is no recipricity and no trade off. It's every person for him/herself.

I don't know any public employee who earns a wage nearly comparable to a private employee at the same level of seniority -- nor do any get their health insurance for free.

The whole argument is essentially: now that we have destroyed unions everywhere else, how quickly can we wipe out the last measure of job and retirement security that is left -- and in the process get rid of as many government employees as possible?

I guess then we'll see all those laid off Lehman Brothers workers rushing into public service for the vast entrepreneurial opportunities and satisfaction of manipulating derivatives.

Feb. 15 2010 10:53 AM
Kim Leong from Brooklyn

These public unions are willing to risk states going bankrupt and making any changes that would help anyone. All this means is that they risk losing everything, Seems a shame that they are more willing to let children suffer, younger employees lose their jobs, services be cut, then come into line with reality that people cannot afford these "gifts" that politicians have doles out for this special interest.

Feb. 15 2010 10:51 AM
Ken from Brooklyn

Wow, union members have pensions, union members don't have to contribute more for their health plans, there was a cost of living increase for union members? This all sounds great to me and I believe that every worker should have these types of benefits.

I have never understood why union busters tear these concepts down instead of join or form their own unions. Is it lack of education or common sense?

Feb. 15 2010 10:49 AM
Janet Jaidi from Bronxville, NY

What we need is more unions in the private sector, not less in the public sector. How about taxing the egregious bonuses to the "rich cartels" on Wall Street to pay for them. If we had more strong unions, there would be a much more even distribution of wealth. Those who do the work should be paid as well as, if not more than, those who just sit at their desks and give orders. Wall Streeters do not work - they wheel and deal and cheat and steal with other people's money.

Feb. 15 2010 10:49 AM
Bob from Monsey

NJ state public employees all contribute one per cent of their salaries for health coverage. The caller to the show put out a falsehood and it should be corrected.

Feb. 15 2010 10:49 AM
Lori from Montclair, NJ

Continuity and consistency. Public employees stay in specialized jobs for long periods of time thereby minimizing training and turnover costs. Yes, they earn 3% increases when the economy is soft but when the economy is roaring and private sector employees are taking new jobs with 10 to 15% increases, public employees are not earning the same in contract increases.

A police officer or teacher or firefighter cannot jump around to different jobs, they for the most part, have specialized skills, so they have inherent limitations in their job growth and selection. Consequently, they are rewarded with stability and a certain amount of protection for turbulent economic times.

Your guest was comparing apples and oranges and overlooked some key points.

Feb. 15 2010 10:48 AM
Anna Potempska from Staten Island, NY

To those who envy us (Public Employees):
Fight to have union in your work place.

Feb. 15 2010 10:47 AM
Joanne from NJ

I would like to see how the county maintenance worker making 25K/year and trying to support a family on that is getting rich on the taxpayers' dime.

And another thing-- I know of at least one county where the employees have been kicking in for their health insurance for at least ten years.

Feb. 15 2010 10:47 AM
BrettG from Astoria

Mr. McMahon leaves out the 2nd class of private-sector employees - execs whose pensions are not subject to trimming even as they trim back pensions & benefits for their workers. And some of that has filtered over to the public-sector.

Feb. 15 2010 10:46 AM
Nick from NYC

The conditions that create the need for the unions your guest despises are created by the companies that decry them.

Look at the data on real wages for the past 20 or 30 years - how can anyone argue that civil service and other union jobs are the "monster" here?

Look at all the data on the transfer of the country's wealth.

You really should challenge your guest more with facts.

On your question about other people not in unions asking why other workers should give up their benefits - they would all take safer salaries and benefits *if they could get them*
- this is called "divide and conquer"!

Feb. 15 2010 10:45 AM
will from hudson valley

The question as posed is what some philosophers call a category erorr. It's poorly put.

The issue is really one of The Tragedy of the commons. One interest in various situation si optimizing its situation at the expense of all others, and doing so so successfully as to run the commonweal for all.

In private industry, this is the employers who have acted so ferociously that most employees are worse off, relative to cost of living than only a few years ago.

Taxpayers and some political pressure groups claiming to represent them, are demanding ever decreasing taxes. Don't tax me, don't tax thee, tax the leprechaun under that tree. It's a fantasy. To the detriment of the commonweal.

Labor uniosn use political pressure to demand more pay and benefits (distorted by tax policy, eg in the case of health care). To the detriment of the commonweal when the financial situation of the business becomes untenable. A fantasy solution.

Everybody's fantasy position, demanded with force and vigor, ruinins the situation for some other group and perhaps for all. Colorado Springs is no longer even picking up the trash in public parks. California is bankrupt and NY is heading there.

Feb. 15 2010 10:43 AM
Ed from Maplewood

there must be an adjustment in the public service expectations in order to reduce the costs of public employment. There is a presumption that the existing service levels must be maintained: for example, that we must have our streets cleared of snow overnight even on a weekend, or that the state must replenish beaches after storms (beaches there is no statewide economic benefit), and so on. I believe the taxpayers are ready to accept this - pay-go for all parts of the public sector.
When there is a reduction in state revenue, there must be a reduction in revenue / staffing. We cannot allow the union pensions to hold the taxpayers hostage.
Teaching is a separate issue; this discussion is state level.

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
Joanne from NJ

I would like to see how the county maintenance worker who makes 25,000 a year and has to support a family on that is getting rich on the taxpayer's dime.

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
Joe from Port Washington

I don't agree that the only draw left will be corruption. Public employees make a competitive salary, with some in Long Island getting significant raises from year to year. To keep quality public employees, certain benefits can be more of a draw than high salaries, but limits on salary are necessary in these economic times.

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

The State may have a moral obligation not to race its workers to the bottom as a for profit company does in term of wages and benefits but the typical "20 years and out" packages many civil servants receive is simply untenable.

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
Eric from Albany

It is common in upstate ny for NYSUT school teachers to make upwards of 75,000/yr. After including Health & benefits, thats over $100,000/yr. for an 8 month / yr job. The notion that public employees make less than private is absurd. What aggravates this even more, is that the folks from the private sector are not only paying the price for their own benefits. They also have to pay for the rising appetites for higher benefits in the public sector

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
L from Brooklyn

NO Brian ...that is not the question we should be asking.... we should be asking why don't we all have these benefits

We should not pit each other against each other.

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
Bob from Manhattan

Unions have no special status in our society. They provide labor, like any other supplier. When their employers' (taxpayers) funds are lacking, they need to face up to the consequences like the private sector employeers.

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
Stuart Waldman from Greenwhich Village

You can't separate this discussion from taxes.
In New Jersey, Christie Whitman slashed taxes for the wealthy to the bone. That's where the fiscal problems started. Pataki did the same in NY. Both states have not recovered from 12 years loss of revenue. A progressive tax structure in NJ, NY and NYC would go a long way to answering fiscal problems, far more than cutting salaries and pensions which will make it difficult to get good workers.

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
mrbad from NYC

There is simply no way any private enterprise, corporate or small biz, that could grow and flourish under the burden of a public sector pension/health care scheme in an age of globalization.

Wake up.

The US is in a period of managed decline and in order to keep the boat from capsizing we all need to scale down our expectations, especially public sector workers who depend on 3rd party legal coercion (i.e taxes)and scare tactics (STRIKE!) to enforce their contract claims, entirely independent of social mores or reasonable mediation. Lower taxes will benefit us all, including the poorest and least able to help themselves and stemming the tide or rising taxes to pay for public wages/taxes is simply a matter of survival.

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
Nick from NYC

The conditions that create the need for the unions your guest despises are created by the companies that decry them.

Look at the data on real wages for the past 20 or 30 years - how can anyone argue that civil service and other union jobs are the "monster" here?

Look at all the data on the transfer of the country's wealth.

You really should challenge your guest more with facts.

On your question about other people not in unions asking why other workers should give up their benefits - they would all take safer salaries and benefits *if they could get them*
- this is called "divide and conquer"!

Feb. 15 2010 10:42 AM
Sainted_Mother from Harlem, NY

Some public servants do their jobs admirably. And, yes, security and pension are attractants.

But the bureuacracy is a DEFINITE turn off. So far, I have managed to outlast all those who opposed my ideas, told me it was impossible, etc. And my particular work affects all subway riders.

But I couldn't do this job in the private sector and despite the bureaucracy, I still love it.

Feb. 15 2010 10:41 AM

These civil servants are NJ residents, our neighbors, who patronize NJ businesses in the course of their lives, pay local NJ taxes. If the governor's platform is lower pay and benefits for NJ households, with the resulting hit in descretionary spending in state, and greater reliance on public health infrastructure to make up for worse benefits, we all suffer down the road.

Feb. 15 2010 10:41 AM
Brooklyn Jim In Brooklyn from Brooklyn

Here we go again with another GOP drown-it-in-the-bathtub extremist delivering the Republican talking points.

Are Brian and his liberal guest going to let another Norquist clone walk all over them? We will see.

Feb. 15 2010 10:35 AM
Pete from Queens

When the Titanic was going down would it have been appropriate for people in the water to reach into the life boats and pull people into the water, or for the Cruise company have installed more lifeboats and a more efficient evacuation procedure.

Reducing civil service benefits by citizens and their elected representatives is the same as people in the water pulling life-boaters out.

Feb. 15 2010 10:34 AM
Kim Leong from Brooklyn

yes, the contracts need to change. the tax payer cannot pay these lavish benefits and salaries ant longer. The states and going bankrupt, local taxes are soaring, people cannot afford to stay in their homes due to the tax load and now these people make more as a whole than the private employees that pay their salaries.

Feb. 15 2010 10:32 AM
Tony from Santa Clara, CA

Lower pay???

You mean higher pay for public employees, right?

Feb. 15 2010 10:29 AM

The traditional draw (in terms of compensation) of talented workers to public employee positions has been pensions and job security, in exchange for much lower salaries than many other careers of consequence.

Steady pensions and job security must be replaced by high annual wages and/or bonuses, or the only draw left will be opportunity for corruption, as with most countries. That would cost more.

Feb. 15 2010 09:50 AM

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