It Really is All About the Money


Em Carpenter

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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16 Responses

  1. Avatar Aaron David says:

    Payroll for gov’t, at any level, is a line item on a budget that is enacted at some level by the public. To whit, the trade-off was (at least in CA, where I am from) lower pay in return for a very generous retirement package.

    Problem is, many of the constraints that lead to that equilibrium don’t hold anymore. As you well describe.

    My wife is a public university employee and has been the entire span of our relationship. She has gone from minor flunkee in the president’s office to HR director in the 16 years that I have known her. Mostly because she is one of those people who can’t stop seeing failures and faults in the system, and so works to fix them as she truly believes in the mission of higher ed. But, that also allows her to see how so many of the people see it only as a giant jobs machine, forgetting its actual and real purpose.

    Both universities and gov’t do good, necessary work. But due to the nature of the beast, the only limiting principle on their employment is through the most ham-fisted manner possible, the public.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    Agreed. I work for my state gov. We have had many budget cuts in the last few years. The section i work for has done a really good job of treating people well which has ameliorated the 4% pay cut and no raises for a few years. And we have jeans days which some people seem to like. We’re pretty damn stable which makes all the work much more efficient. Though our one cookie per year for state employees day went the way of the dodo and any sort of holiday celebration outside of an email with gifs is history. But treating people well means better service which the citizens who come to the court want.Report

  3. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    My wife and I have both been public employees who transitioned to private sector, and there is very little the public sector could offer to attract either of us back.

    At least not before we are done climbing the ladder. Then we might be willing to accept the lower pay in exchange for the security.


  4. Avatar InMD says:

    I was a federal employee before I went to law school. I couldn’t handle the drudgery but I do miss the holidays and benefits. We have kind of the best of both worlds now with me in the private sector able to get the big raises while my wife is in an NPO embedded in a federal agency with a government-like benefits package.

    Public service in the US is hard. We need it to work well but something about our culture seems to prioritize patronage over effectiveness in the entire sector. One of the many reasons we can’t have nice things.Report

  5. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I visited a friend’s private sector IT workplace a while back – I guess they have a policy that if you’re hanging out of an evening with a potentially interested and qualified person, bring em by. We played ping pong, had a beer (a different microbrewery keg every week), had a tour of the office (here’s the lunch room, stocked with bread, cheese, fruit, canned soups, energy bars, yogourt).

    What a difference from my current public service job. And I can’t really bring myself to make the move to a place like that – job security and a good pension are totally foreign at his job.

    I’m in the same boat with no merit increases for essentially ever. At least in my current position my boss trusts us to manage our own time. Work from home when that works best, nobody’s tracking our lunch breaks, etc. At the old job the performative frugality was kind of ridiculous. Someone caught wind that the employer was buying Costco coffee and filters for the break room, and they had to squash that lest there be a scandal that spoilt fat cat civil servants were suckling cheap drip coffee from the teat of the long suffering taxpayer.Report

  6. Avatar atomickristin says:

    Great piece! Loved it!Report

  7. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    While the legislature has doled out a raise for the last two years, last year’s was the first one in several years. And while the modest cost of living raise was welcome, the bigger issue is that there are no merit raises.

    This seems like the worst possible way to save on payroll costs, since it disproportionately drives away the highest-performing workers.

    Also, I used the <em> tag to quote Em.Report

  8. Avatar Damon says:

    Well, in my non public sector job, we don’t have colas, we have merit increases, which typically have been 3%. Sorry, that’s not merit..that;s a “merit cola”. Now, 3% a year for 10 years DOES add up, but there were some years…a long time ago, I got 4% merit and 4% cola. Now that’s a pay increase.

    I’ve worked for companies that the AVERAGE budgeted merit increase was 1.5%. Whey would anyone bust their ass for that? Morale was bad, and all the non pay stuff was tried. That may motivate some, but not many. They even instituted a program of awards where they gave you a gold start to put in your office…a paper gold star you could hand on your cube or door. WTF? Are we 4 year olds?Report

  9. Avatar North says:

    Which is, in a nutshell, why so many states, cities and municipalities have such a pension crisis. Promising future money is almost irresistible attractive to politicians: it costs nothing in present terms but makes your public employees happy and willing to overlook lacks of raises elsewhere. Of course the bill eventually comes due.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to North says:

      Don’t forget the Federal Reserve. For a very long time they ran things so that completely safe investments returned ~4% per year, reasonably safe ones returned 6%, and more speculative ones higher rates. In 2000, most city and state pension funds were in good shape: they assumed annual returns around 7.5%, and had done that well essentially forever.

      Since the 2001 recession, the Fed has acted as if the economy is so fragile that interest rates in those ranges will crush it. The Fed didn’t recognize that the financial industry was packaging risky stuff and getting AAA ratings on it. Public pensions aren’t the only ones, but most states/municipalities aren’t allowed to shed pension obligations like private pensions are (eg, use bankruptcy to cut benefits or toss the whole thing over to the PBGC).

      The public pension fund I know best is Colorado’s PERA. If they had earned 7.5% per year over the last 20 years, they would be in excellent shape, rather than struggling.Report

  10. Avatar Philip H says:

    We have had “pay for performance” in my branch of the federal government for over a decade now, and it hasn’t really worked. At the start – and we were paybanded out of the GS pay scale at the same time – a lot of folks cranked raises and scores up to help get what they perceived as pay aprity between lower for GS levels and higher levels in the same band. Then we were all told unofficially that scores were too skewed to the higher percentiles, and so a lot of scores (and thus raises) were driven down to create a more effective looking bell curve where a 65 is supposed to be a great score since its in the middle (never mind that is an F to anyone who has been in any school in America). And all the while our cost of living percentage has been a pawn between Congress and the WH, we are getting little useful feedback in our reviews that actually help people get better scores so they can get better raises.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but no one in government seems to have figured it out.Report

  11. After reading this OP, I feel a bit chastened for my opposition to public employees’ unions. While I still believe they’re mostly a bad thing, I have to recognize that requiring some sort of progressive wage increases, either through cost of living adjustments, “merit” raises, or “compression” fixing plans (or other means), can help government retain good and dedicated workers. I also have to recognize that public employee unions tend to force the state’s hand in that respect, which could mean they do some good. I still lean toward opposing them, but Em’s piece offers a good counterpoint.Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Do you support unions generally but not so much public servants unions? If so, why the dichotomy?Report

      • It’s complicated. I have reservations about unions in general, but my feelings are mixed.

        My feelings are much less “mixed” when it comes to public-sector unions. I.e., I’m generally opposed. Many of my reasons are expressed in this post: <>. However, as one of the commenters pointed out, my point about there not being any incentive to cut costs was off base, especially in the absolutist way in which I expressed it.Report

        • Sorry about the funky linking there.

          I could have added that Em’s post also presents a strong counterpoint to my prior claim about state employers having no “vested interest in keeping costs down.” West Virginia, by Em’s telling, has a pretty strong interest in, or at least practice of, keeping costs down. Also by Em’s telling, the state seems to be doing so in a way that harms its own interests.Report

  12. Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

    If a conservative is a liberal who got mugged, then a liberal is a conservative that hasn’t had a pay raise in a few years.Report