This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
Numbers don’t lie, crowed the Washington Federation of State Employees last week, cheering the release of a state survey that concluded state employees are underpaid.
If only it were that simple. Numbers themselves may not lie, but they have been known to deceive.
The state’s survey, commissioned by the state Department of Personnel, is surely of assistance to employee unions seeking to bargain bigger salaries. But the survey, as incomplete and skewed as it is, is of limited use as a public policy tool.
One look at the list of Washington employers that responded to the state’s pay survey tells the story.
• Sixty percent are local governments, whose workers are the envy of their state counterparts. Cities, counties, ports and transit districts have in recent years engaged in games of salary hopscotch that have left the state in the dust. Allowing them to drive the growth of the state salary grid is like taking up jogging with a marathoner.
• Sixty-one percent of the respondents – public and private – have majority union workforces. A recent national study found that union employees make, on average, 15 percent more than the nonunion workers who comprise the majority of the American workforce.
• The list of participating private employers is dominated by large companies – Boeing, Amazon.com and Eddie Bauer among them. Half are health care organizations or private colleges. In other words, these were not run-of-the-mill businesses helping inform the state’s salary comparisons. They are some of the state’s most desirable places to work.
We can hear the response: Why shouldn’t the state be among their ranks, able to offer attractive pay to attract the best and brightest?
In a perfect world, it would be. Unfortunately, perfection isn’t in the state budget.
What taxpayers are providing, if not salaries on par with state employees’ counterparts in local government and private business, are liberal benefit packages.
The Department of Personnel’s survey did not attempt to compare total compensation, and what benefit information it did provide was skewed by its employer sample.
That’s a major flaw with the survey. The cost of providing health care and retirement benefits is what’s really driving payroll expenses. Those costs, in fact, limit how much is left to fix pay inequities.
State workers should be fairly compensated for the work they do. But any assessment of what’s fair is incomplete without consideration of all compensation, whether it arrives in the form of a paycheck or a guaranteed pension.
What’s fair to state employees also must be weighed against what’s fair to the people they serve. Money that is spent to boost the salaries of public employees is money that isn’t available to sustain public services.