November 2010 Issue
October 24, 2010

POV: Public sector employees sacrifice too

Author: Denis Hughes
Source: NYSUT United

Blaming public employees for New York's fiscal ills is akin to accepting the notion that Spot found little Bobby's homework edible. Where does responsibility and accountability truly lie?

Attacks on public-sector workers have become pervasive. Critics rant that public employee pensions have caused irreparable harm to the state's economy, while accusing our public servants of not "sacrificing enough" to help restore some measure of overall fiscal stability. The fact is, reckless mortgage practices, combined with too little transparency and oversight in critical sectors of our economy, are what caused this downturn, certainly not working men and women.

Rampant greed created the problems our economy faces today, and has led to the financial ruin of many in the private sector, as their hard-earned pensions vanished and their 401(k)s plummeted in value. Now, those who turned a blind eye to this financial malfeasance have set their sights on the few remaining workers who do have decent benefits.

Instead of trying to destroy the remaining sector of our economy that provides decent benefits and, worse, pitting sectors of the American work force against one another, we should be figuring out ways to restore a measure of financial security to private-sector workers in their retirement years.

The average public employee pension in New York is in the neighborhood of $23,000 a year. That includes the high-end pensions of political appointees. These modest benefits provide retired public servants the opportunity to meet only their most basic needs in retirement.

Everyone, including public employees, is outraged when we hear the occasional story of a public pensioner who abused the system and now gets an exorbitant pension. However, the reality is the vast majority of public retirees get by on pensions of less than $20,000 per year.

This is hardly exorbitant. Calls for lesser benefits are disingenuous. In effect, pensions are deferred wages. Workers contribute part of their salaries to fund their pensions.

There is a myth that public employees have not made the same sacrifices as other members of the work force.

Unfortunately, they tend to ignore the fact that public employees, like all New Yorkers, are paying higher college tuitions and have had their assets significantly devalued.

Speaking of sacrifice, a recent study by the Uniformed Fire Officers Association analyzed personnel records dating to 1971. It shows that officers of the Fire Department of New York die six years sooner than the average American male.

In addition, of the 1,899 fire officers who died over the last 40 years, 154 died in the line of duty. They averaged only 50.4 years of age, or 28 years less than the 78.4 years of life expectancy of the general male population. It's something to think about for the rest of us. Particularly those who feel that public employees haven't sacrificed enough.

Denis Hughes is president of the New York State AFL-CIO. His commentary was first published Sept. 17 in the Times Union.