Wednesday, 30 November 2011

ARE GOVERNMENT WORKERS LAZY AND OVERPAID?

The posting by Brian Blodgett is indeed refreshingly honest and it does point to problems is the salary structure of the government. One issue is the value of labor in government, and within the public sector the different levels from local and state to federal as well as different fields from clerical services to top management in a science lab.

There are many studies on this issue, some conducted by universities, others by right wing think tanks, others by government agencies, none of them agreeing exactly on the results. Let us assume for the sake of argument that government employees are overpaid and lazy, because government is outside the realm of competition. Why is the value of a government employee, practically at any level and any branch, including DoD, worth less than the private sector counterpart with similar education and experience? If government were such a great deal, why is it that government workers use public service as resume meat to jump ship, go the the private sector, do the exact same thing and earn much more?

The second issue is comparing the merit-based system in government versus the private sector. Government has rationalized the entire process from hiring, promotion to firing, mostly based on a merit-based system, although it is far more important to be 'going along and getting along', and to stay as 'professionally cool' in order to survive and move ahead, than it is to make waves intended to improve the workplace. As for the private sector, the system is merit-based from hiring to firing, as management tries to make sure that there is safety net under its feet and looks to shift the burden and blame beneath its feet, while taking all credit at the top when good things happen to the company. Mechanisms of accountability are more stringent in federal government than in the private sector also because there is a sense of working for and serving the public, whereas the private sector only looks at quarterly reports, and only in terms of how can management survive and thrive, often regardless of the health of the company. 

There has been a long-standing prejudice against government workers in just about every sector, from elementary school teachers to DoD and intelligence workers. That prejudice comes mostly from conservative critics and the media that portray government workers as lazy under-producing drones, wasting taxpayer resources, committed to affirmative action that many in conservative and some in liberal circles view as license to bypass the merit system, lacking accountability because there is no 'boss' as in the private sector to crack the whip, and that a government job means the person is not good enough to take risks in the private sector. The anti-government prejudice also comes from ideologues that associate anything with a government bureaucracy as 'Socialist'. Blaming the bureaucracy has been fair game for decades, although the vast bureaucracy was set up during the Progressive Era (from Theodore Roosevelt and Taft to Wilson) in order to make the economy and private sector more efficient and help it expand.

Anti-government worker prejudices intensified with the Reagan administration, as did anti-unionism. I do not remember such intense disdain for government employees in the 1970s when I was in college - postal workers were the exception, and that was largely a racist issue given that minorities worked in the sector. The attack on government employees has been part of a political campaign, helped by the corporate-owned media and private sector, fueled by racists, all intending to attack the public sector as the focus of all evil as Reagan did, while arguing that salvation rests squarely with the private sector. This attack has been part of a campaign to attack labor unions, to cut wages and benefits for the most vulnerable public sector workers, to shift resources from government personnel and dish out contracts to private companies. 

Government surveys indicate that the average state and local government worker makes about a third more in wages and benefits packages. However, public sector workers are better educated, have greater experience and operate under a more austere system of accountability. Moreover, public sector workers of similar education and experience earn an average 11% less than their counterparts in the private sector. It is also worth noting that when figuring into the equation the compensation of top management in public sector versus private sector, and the private contractors that government frequently uses, the public sector is a bargain while the cost of doing business in the private sector is astronomical by comparison. Finally, the recent recession has taken a larger bite out of the private sector, and the goal of many in right wing camps is to bring down the public sector salary structure.

As to productivity of the public vs. private sector, studies conducted by right-wing think tanks indicate that government workers are less productive by 12%. University studies regarding productivity comparisons differ sharply with the results of right-wing think tanks whose studies have been used by Tea Party politicians to slash salaries and benefits and eliminate positions at the local and state levels. When breaking down the productivity work load, it is 'loaded' toward the bottom of the labor pyramid, that is toward the lowest paid, while in government work load is more evenly distributed.

Moreover, the motivation level in public sector management is as high as that of private sector, in spite of vast compensation differences favoring the private sector. The reality is that public opinion on this issue is shaped by the media and conservative politicians, invariably trying to secure tax breaks, subsidies, contracts and other perks for the private sector. The Tea Party has done a major PR job throughout the country to go after government workers at all levels, it has used the issue to rally support from those who have no jobs or who have seen their wages cut in the private sector, and above all to default all problems in society to lazy and overpaid government workers. This issue will remain a major one for the decade as the US is trying to lower its public debt at all levels, and right wingers will insist that the way to do it is slash salaries and benefits and lower the number of workers.

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