State workers still earn less

Income: Health care and other benefits look better

May 6, 2010 

A new survey done for state government shows most of Washington’s state workers still earn less than their counterparts in the private sector or local governments. But they also frequently have better health care coverage and other benefits.

Details of the report, prepared for the state Department of Personnel by national survey firm Segal Co., were to be released this morning. Labor groups preparing for contract talks this month are waiting to see the data to determine which pay inequities they likely will target in the negotiations.

“It validates that we still have the same problems we had before. It doesn’t change the picture,” Department of Personnel director Eva Santos said Wednesday, sharing a few general conclusions of the report in an interview.

She said “a third of state job classes are about 25 percent below the market,” and “I can say there are some jobs that lost ground” since the previous report in 2007. But 18 percent of state workers earn more than their private-sector or public-sector counterparts, including food-service workers, who earn about 15 percent more when working for the state.

State employees’ health benefit packages appear much richer than those of their private-sector counterparts – particularly for family or dependent coverage. State workers also are more likely to receive a fixed-benefit pension than are private-sector workers who contribute to 401(k) plans, Personnel’s consultants found.

Santos said that in doing the comparison, they did not try to compare total compensation between the sectors. She said that is because her agency deals more with pay issues. But skeptics such as Dick Davis, the coordinator of the Washington Alliance for a Competitive Economy, said a broader comparison is fairer, and that national data show a greater overall payment to the public-sector worker than to the private-sector worker.

“We know that public employees are retiring with generous defined benefit programs that are unheard of in most of the private sector,” Davis said.

He tracks the pay issue for his business-oriented organization out of concern for the sustainability of government spending.

“It’s a critical fiscal issue,” Davis said. “As we look around the country, the gap between public and private compensation has become a serious issue.”

Health benefits in many cases are better for public employees at a time when government is having a tougher time sustaining services with its revenue flows. This prompted Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli this year to push – unsuccessfully – for a higher worker contribution to health care premiums.

DOP says the average pay for full-time workers in the state’s executive branch is now $54,352 a year, based on March 31 data.

Data kept by the state Employment Security Department show state government pay, including in higher education, is a bit lower – averaging $49,906 in 2008. But it was more than the $46,562 paid on average to all workers statewide in all nonfarm occupations.

The figures did not take into account the higher-education needs or skills that many government jobs require to protect the public, according to Tim Welch of the Washington Federation of State Employees. Welch said a public-comment period on the survey results starts today, and that his organization intends to tear into the data and offer comments before DOP’s May 28 deadline.

“Part of contract negotiations is to correct inequities. Not that we’ll have an easy time at the table doing it, but it’s our job to try,” Welch said. Talks begin May 19-20 for the federation’s general-government bargaining team.

About 80 job classifications were surveyed. Areas in which worker pay lags, and in some cases causes recruitment problems, include nurses for state hospitals, auditors, transportation engineers and technology workers, Santos said. About one-third of workers are paid 11 percent to 25 percent below market, and an additional 30 percent are paid at least 25 percent below market, DOP’s synopsis shows.

Santos’ summary of the report shows that nurses earn about 10 percent below the market rate, corrections officers earn 17.5 percent less, and information technology specialists earn 32.5 percent less.

The report is done every two years, and in past years it was compiled by the Personnel agency. But Santos decided to go outside the agency this time, hiring the consulting firm for $147,000. It would have taken 10 to 15 agency workers to complete it, she said.

Santos said the Segal researchers got responses from about 140 private and public employers in the state, more than half the 277 who were asked to share data. But that is considered a good response rate and a statistically valid sampling.

Other key findings show that benefits for state workers are in line with or perhaps higher than those received by their counterparts. For instance:

 • The state provides 12 days a year of paid sick leave; 56 percent of other employers said they do, too.

 • The state provides 13 days of paid vacation after a year of employment; 59 percent of other employers said they provide 10-14 days.

 • The state provides 11 paid holidays a year, and 56 percent of other employers said they provide 10-14.

The same is true for health benefits. The state pays 88 percent of policy costs for workers and for families.

In comparison:

 • 51 percent of private-sector employers and 59 percent of public employers paid 100 percent for the employee.

 • 75 percent of private-sector employers paid more than 80 percent for workers, and 26 percent paid more than 80 percent of family coverage.

 • 93 percent of public-sector employers paid 100 percent of an employee’s health-insurance premiums, and 57 percent paid more than 80 percent for family coverage.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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