AFSCME, the largest union of state and local government workers in the US, recently launched a media campaign, called No More Lies, to challenge the popular myth that public service workers are overpaid and have overly generous benefits.
“We aim to remind the country that attacking public services and public service workers will not fix our broken economy, create jobs or solve the growing income disparity in America,” said Gerald McEntee, AFSCME’s president.
The myth of the overpaid public servant has become the main talking point for media pundits and others who relish the idea of slashing public services, especially those services aimed at the working class.
They often cite this misleading factoid to make the myth seem plausible– “The average wage for public service workers,” they say. “Is higher than the average wage of private sector workers.”
The problem with this factoid is that it is based on a faulty apple-to-oranges comparison that lumps together pay for all workers without regard for the type of work they do.
An accurate comparison would compare the wages and salaries received for similar types of work in the public and private sectors.
“In an apples-to-apples comparison state and local government employees receive less compensation than their private sector counterparts,” said Dr Keith A. Bender, co-author of Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Pay Over 20 Years.
Out of Balance? is the published results of a study done by Bender and Dr John S. Heywood for the Center for State and Local Government Excellence.
In their study Bender and Heywood compared compensation for similar types of work and skills in the public and private sector. They found that
- state workers make 11 percent less than their private sector cohorts; local government workers make 12 percent less and
- even when benefits are factored in, state workers make 6.8 percent less than their private sector cohorts and local government workers make 7.4 percent less.
To put it another way, “public sector employees earn less than they would earn if they took their skills to the private sector,” said Bender.
The authors also compared compensation on a state-by-state basis, and report that in 2008, the last year for which data was available, Texas state public service workers were paid 15 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector.
During the early 1980s, the pay of Texas state public service workers was comparable to pay in the private sector, but by 2001, Texas state workers were making 21 percent less than workers in the private sector.
Between 2000 and 2008, Texas state workers’ pay averaged 17 percent less than private sector workers.
For the most part, public service workers don’t resent the fact that their pay lags behind pay in the private sector because most chose public service for other reasons than pay.
“We work face-to-face with people and we’re not making a whole lot of money,” said Lashan Wiggins, a laid off child welfare worker in Illinois and AFSCME member. “We do it because we have a passion for what we do.”
What most public service workers do resent, however, is being used as scapegoats by those who want to justify slashing vital public services.