the future of our public workforce: sacrificing quality to save a buck

by Dani Fitts, San Francisco ’11

As I approach the final stretch of this year-long Fellowship, I have been confronted with the reality
of the public sector job market. Although I will spend the next two to three
years sequestered away in the academic world, I fear that when I am re-released
into the real world, public employment will be an uninviting prospect.

The current popular opinion is that public employees are to blame for the government’s fiscal crises. High
wages, low contributions to health benefits, high pensions, and overtime pay,
in addition to media portrayals of public employees who abuse the system or
break the law to gain extra wages or pension have all contributed to the rising
tide of public opinion in opposition to bureaucrats. I understand the
frustration, and I agree that the system is not perfect the way it is. However,
I also think that acting too hastily to remove the benefits of public
employment could have serious long-term negative effects on our government

The prevailing thought that public employees are the problem is not unique to conservative areas likes Wisconsin, where
Governor Scott Walker is attempting
to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights. Even in liberal bastions
like San Francisco,
citizens and elected officials have agreed that the costs of public employees
are too high to bear. On May 25, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, along with six
members of the Board of Supervisors, the Chamber of Commerce, SPUR, representatives
from the non-profit sector, and a coalition of labor groups introduced a charter
to reform public pensions. The proposal, which will likely be
joined by other pension reform measures on the November ballot, would make
changes for current and future employees including increased retirement age,
capped pension benefits, increased cost sharing by employees, greater employee
contributions to the retiree health trust fund, elimination of pension spiking,
and it institutes a sliding scale to protect lower wage employees.

I am not troubled by these reforms specifically, although the prospect of retiring at the age of 65 is not
particularly appealing, but this brought to mind an article I had read a few
days before this pension reform ballot measure was introduced. The article,
written by Brian Joseph for HealthyCal.org argues that California
government payrolls are shrinking
. He cites the California Employment
Development Department report that states since “2008 more than 100,000
federal, state and local government jobs have been eliminated in California,
creating the worst job market in that sector since at least 1990” and goes on to
specify that “more than 3,600 government jobs have been lost, on average, each
month since June 2008.” At first blush, this seems like the desired outcome in
an economic downturn because it means lower cost to the government. However,
there are three important factors to consider before passing final judgment on
the value of decreased government employment. First, citizens expect the same
level of service despite the fact that the job functions remain vacant. This
means that remaining employees will have to fill in those gaps and that means
higher overtime costs. Second, those employees who have left government employment
have done so in many cases because of retirement. For example, between 2007 and
2010 state retirements in the CalPERS system increased 49%. The increased
number of retirees is “forcing agencies to choose between paying for current
employees or retirement costs. The result has been that government employment
in California
has not kept pace with the population.” Last, Malcolm
Maclachlan of Capitol Weekly
describes that retirees are most likely the
more skilled workers who are harder to replace, and they are taking all of
their knowledge with them when they leave. I fear that this continued trend
could lead to serious shortfalls not only for populations that rely on
government assistance but also for the average person. People living in the
middle and upper classes, many of whom have long held the belief that they pay
for costly services they do not use, will find that they long for certain
government functions once they are so underfunded that they cannot function at
their current levels.

I am not pretending to be an expert on pension reform or on labor statistics, but I do know that it is
becoming increasingly difficult to become a public servant. Government agencies
are reluctant to hire, benefits and wages are becoming less desirable, and the
public does not have a great deal of respect for the job itself. Public
servants are portrayed in the media as lazy, unimaginative, overly-bureaucratic,
undemocratic, and, at times, deceitful. In a world in which we want to
encourage smart, efficient use of government dollars, how can we expect to recruit
forward-thinking employees if this environment and mind-set persists? As I look
ahead to the job environment two to three years in the future, I can’t help but
wonder if public service will be a reasonable career path given the degree to
which benefits and wages will further erode and the student loans I will incur in
that time. I want to make clear that I am not an opponent of pension reform,
but I only hope that we can achieve greater government efficiency while keeping
in mind the future of public service employment. Political consultant Steve
Maviglio describes that, under the current environment, “maneuvering by
politicians is creating a brain drain in the state workforce.” Public servants
and elected officials must be committed and realistic about striking a balance
between saving money and hiring a competent workforce. At a time when more and
more public servants will reach retirement age, it is of utmost importance to
ensure that public service is an attractive career opportunity for the
innovative and forward thinking leaders of tomorrow.

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