State pay cuts on hold for now

The Texas Legislature is considering a number of measures that would drastically erode state services and harm workers who provide the services. Last week, the Texas State Employees Union mobilized members against two particular bills, HB 2720, which would authorize state agencies and universities to furlough workers without pay for up to 30 days a year, and HB 3168, which would eliminate longevity pay for state employees.

“Longevity pay helps the state retain skilled and qualified state employees. Losing them would have a huge impact on the state’s ability to provide services,” said Derrick Osabase, TSEU’s political director.

Currently Texas state employees receive an extra $20 a month in longevity pay after two years of service. Every two years after that, up to 40 years of service, they receive an additional $20 a month.  Eliminating longevity pay would cut state employee salaries by as much as $2,500 a year.

HB 3168 would replace longevity pay with a merit pay system. Replacing benefits like longevity pay that helps all public sector workers with merit pay that helps only a select few has been a priority of the right wing’s political agenda. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a  group that provides state lawmakers with ideas for right-wing legislation, has made merit pay for teachers an important piece of its education agenda.

But merit pay does little to improve services and contributes much to income inequality. A study by Vanderbilt University of a pilot merit pay program in Nashville found that students of teachers in the merit pay program “did not outperform students of teachers (not in the merit pay program).” A study by Harvard University researchers found similar results in a study of the New York City schools merit pay system.

While merit pay doesn’t do much to improve performance, it does create more inequality in the workforce. A study by Lemieux, MacLeod, and Parent found that the rise of merit-based pay systems between the late 1970s and the early 1990’s played a big role in the growing inequality of male wages. The authors, who generally support the use of merit raises, found that their “use is constrained by the quality of available performance measures.”

Heywood and Parent found that African-American workers were less likely to benefit from merit raises than their white counterparts. They suggests that the lack of transparency in the process for determining who receives merit pay allows racial bias to creep into the process. 

TSEU thought that the House committee responsible for HB 3168 would vote on the bill this week and mobilized members to contract lawmakers and urge them to oppose the bill. “We thought that it would be reported out of committee soon,” Osabase said. “But other lawmakers on the committee told us that Rep. Calagari (the bill’s sponsor) didn’t expect such a large backlash and is considering postponing a vote on the bill.”

The furlough bill, HB 2720 sponsored by Rep. Jim Pitts, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, would reduce state employee salaries by as much as  12 percent a year and would make it much harder for people to access state services.

“When agency or university workers are furloughed, the work does not go away,” Osabase told lawmakers at committee hearing. “Furloughs and wage cuts that they will cause will increase employee turnover rates and lessen productivity.”

Osabase reminded lawmakers of what happened earlier in the decade when budget cuts caused turnover rates at the state’s Health and Human Services Commission to skyrocket. “The commission gave more than 4,000 pink slips to health and human service workers because lawmakers thought that a private contractor could do the work more cheaply than state employees,” Osabase said. “But the privatization scheme failed, thousands of children lost their Medicaid and health care through the Children’s Health Insurance Program and families went hungry because they couldn’t get food stamps. In the end, the state had to fire the contractor and rehire state employees, but the impact of those cuts is still being felt today.”

TSEU urged members to call lawmakers and urge them to oppose the furlough bill. For now,  HB 2720 remains in committee where TSEU will try to keep it until this session of the Legislature expires at the end of May.

Defeating these bills and other attacks on state services and people who provide them will require TSEU to build on the momentum it generated from its largest Lobby Day ever, which drew 5,000 people to state capital to protest the proposed cuts.

In an e-mail message to members TSEU vice-president Mike Gross urged members not to bask in the success of Lobby Day, but to keep organizing and mobilizing to save state services. “Get your co-workers off the sidelines– sign them up into the union today,” Gross said. “It is imperative that the politicians understand that this movement is fueled by a constantly growing organization of people who have demonstrated their commitment to fight back no matter how long it takes.”

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