By Lowell L. Kalapa
There are a lot of points that should be considered in the current debate over wage increases for public employees that sometimes get lost in all of the rhetoric and charges and countercharges that ensue when the financial stakes are as high as they are projected to be.
It has not been a pretty picture down at the legislature as lawmakers struggle to find ways to fund collective bargaining contracts which may soon be on their plates. As the possibility of strikes loom on the horizon, any and every possible rock is being turned to find the money that may be necessary to fulfill the pay raise wish list.
Just how much are we talking about? Well, according to a presentation made by the department of budget and finance late last year, the price tag could range anywhere from about $200 million, if management gets its way, to as much as $600 million if the public employee unions get everything that they are demanding. While the final settlement will probably be a number somewhere between those two extremes, taxpayers should recognize the magnitude of the pay increase requests.
While there will be much debate over the issue of pay increases, the importance of accountability should not be lost in the crescendo of that debate. Since taxpayers are the ones who have to come up with the money to pay those wage adjustments, one has to ask whether or not taxpayers believe they are getting their money’s worth. For example, some unions are asking that the percentage increases being demanded be applied “across- the-board” which one would assume that as long as the employee is a card-carrying member in that unit, the employee will get the same percentage increase in pay as his or her fellow unit members.
The valid question to ask here is whether or not all employees in that unit should be paid equally as well. In other words, where is the justification for giving one employee the same pay raise as the next employee without some sort of evaluation or assessment of how well that employee performs? Is what the unions are saying is that poorly performing employees should get the identical wage adjustment to an outstanding employee? So the system seems to want to reward all public employees equally. Does that mean taxpayers can expect all public employees to perform equally as well or on the flip side, that all public employees perform equally as poorly?
The other issue that taxpayers should not lose sight of is the fact that comparisons are made across state lines. That is Hawaii needs to pay their – whatever class of public worker, teacher, police, etc. – if we are to keep them here in Hawaii because other states or cities are going to lure them away. Well, that may be true, but what about the taxpaying public that has to come up with the money to pay public employees? Has anyone asked how employees in the private sector compare with their counterparts on the mainland?
It is just like the argument that we need to pay public workers more because the cost of living is so high in Hawaii. Well, don’t workers in the private sector also have to contend with that same high cost of living? Perhaps a more relevant comparison should be made between public workers and their counterparts in the private sector in Hawaii.
Of course, when the discussion of right-sizing government comes up there is always the wailing that people are going to lose their jobs. Well in the private sector when it is necessary to reduce costs, there is no hesitation to eliminate positions and cut back on spending. So something has to be said about the job security that public employees enjoy. Is that worth something that cannot be quantified in the collective bargaining negotiations?
Finally, for years lawmakers have dawdled over the issue of employee benefits, especially health care benefits. Few, if any, employees in the private sector enjoy health care coverage after retirement not to mention that spouses of public employees are also afforded that benefit. Nor do employees in the private sector enjoy a refund of the Medicare premium that is deducted from their Social Security benefit. Is that worth something in the collective bargaining negotiations? After all, these benefits, be it job security or retirement health benefits, all add to the cost of government.
In the heat of the debate over public employee pay raises these are just some of the things that should be considered if indeed there is to be “fairness” in whatever wage settlements are reached.