Boston’s Low-Wage Workers Affected by City’s Shutdown

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

While most attention in the Boston tragedy is rightfully focused on the victims of last Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, the damage done by the terrorist attacks didn’t end with the explosions or the subsequent shootout that led to additional deaths. Much of the city shut down during the manhunt for the terror suspects; and while most salaried employees could take the day off without losing pay, low-wage workers did not have that luxury. Other workers were forced to work long hours or brave dangerous conditions to get their jobs done.

Salon took a look at the various ways that the bombings affected workers in Boston, including a fear that many businesses will not compensate low-wage workers for the time off the city’s shutdown required:

“Most low wage workers can’t afford to lose a day’s pay, and there’s no doubt this lockdown will adversely impact the city’s working poor,” said Jessica Kutch, a labor activist who co-founded the organizing site, in an email to Salon. “I’d really like to see employers state on the record that their hourly workers will be paid for the time they were scheduled to work today—but I suspect that most employers will place the burden of this shutdown squarely on the backs of people who can least afford it.”

Salon also reported that some businesses are requiring workers to use vacation time, although some relented in the face of internal pushback.

First responders, of course, have been working extended hours, with police and medical personnel working much longer than normal days:

Steven Tolman, the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, told Salon, “They’re doing God’s work,” he said. “They’re exhausted, they’ve been working constantly. The heroism of the people who were there and saw things that they never thought they’d see in their life is just incredible.”

“It’s justification why public employees are entitled to a decent pension and the best health care because they put so much on the line in a time of need,” he said.

Workers in some industries have been necessary for supporting law enforcement engaged in the hunt for the suspects or stranded tourists while transportation has been limited:

Brian Lang, the president of UNITE HERE Local 26, told Salon that many of the hotel workers he represents have been working double shifts with little time off, as many of the guests have been unable to leave the city. Police from out of town have completely occupied some hotels, while authorities set up a command center at the Westin downtown, just blocks from the bombing.

“Those hotels were full of people all week, so our members in there were like the second responders,” Lang said. “There were the first responders who aided the people who were directly affected by the bombings, but many of the folks who were affected were from out of town and they were staying at these hotels. They were exhausted, they were traumatized, and it was the hotel workers who comforted them, fed them, who made sure they had clean, safe rooms to say in.”

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Fight for Wisconsin State Workers

Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker fast-tracked a punitive plan to cut the wages of state workers, prevent them from bargaining over things like workplace safety, and break their unions. This was not a negotiating ploy on his part, because he is refusing to negotiate with the workers at all.

To enforce it, he said he was prepared to bring in the National Guard.

Although Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, there is still a chance to stop this from passing, because it is such an extreme measure that the votes aren’t there even in a Republican-controlled Senate:

So could it pass the state legislature? While the Republicans have a commanding 57-38 majority (plus one Independent) in the Wisconsin house, they have a much narrower 19-14 majority in the state Senate. The Senate majority leader says he doesn’t know when the chamber will take it up, effectively acknowledging he doesn’t have the votes yet. Four Republicans were quoted in the Journal-Sentinel saying they weren’t ready to commit to support the legislation and another four Republicans whose districts have lots of state workers wouldn’t return phone calls.

The Wisconsin state AFL-CIO is running television and radio ads against Walker’s move:

And there’s a lot of on the ground action taking place. If you’re in Wisconsin, check out this comprehensive events list to see if you can join in in person. There’s stuff going on in several locations today, tomorrow, and Wednesday, and SEIU has buses going to the capitol from around the state for lobby days.


News Flash: Public Sector Employees Didn’t Destroy State Budgets

In the last few months, public sector employees have become the economic scapegoats. Governors and state legislatures around the country are claiming that their budget problems and shortfalls are due, not to the Great Recession, but to the overwhelming burden of public employee’s salaries and pensions.

James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has something to say to these politicians today in the Detroit News:

It’s time for a reality check. Government employees did not blow a hole in any state budget, including Michigan. Economist Dean Baker points out that shortfalls were almost entirely caused by the recession. “If revenue had increased in step with normal growth (2.4 percent real growth, plus inflation), state and local governments would have had an additional $290 billion since the start of the downturn,” Baker notes.

Public employees didn’t create a huge housing bubble. Wall Street did that. And public employees didn’t cause the Great Recession through reckless speculation. Wall Street did that, too.

State governments didn’t get $3 trillion dollars in loans from the Federal Reserve and profit from those loans by relending them. Again, that was Wall Street.

It’s also important to remember, as economist Robert Reich points out, that the typical public employee’s pension is only $19,000 a year.

These attacks on working families and government workers are nothing more than divide-and-conquer tactics aimed at weakening or eliminating all unions. “

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Zombie Attacks on Public Employees

We’ve been through this before, but given that attacks on public sector workers keep staggering up and damaging our economy, zombie-like, it bears repeating: public employees are actually slightly underpaid by comparison with private sector workers.


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Freezing Workers Out

President Obama’s move to freeze wages for federal workers is so wrong on so many levels:

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says today’s White House announcement of a two-year pay freeze for federal workers is “bad for the middle class, bad for the economy and bad for business.”

No one is served by our government participating in a “race to the bottom” in wages. The president talked about the need for shared sacrifice, but there’s nothing shared about Wall Street and CEOs making record profits and bonuses while working people bear the brunt.

Pointing to the upcoming federal deficit commission report that is expected to call for wide ranging cuts in crucial federal programs and policies, AFGE President John Gage offered a much more blunt criticism of the pay freeze:

This proposal is a superficial panic reaction to the draconian cuts his deficit commission will recommend. A federal pay freeze saves peanuts at best and, while he may mean it as just a public relations gesture, this is no time for political scapegoating.

Gage says the two-year freeze barely makes a dent in the federal budget deficit but will be devastating to the “VA nursing assistant making $28,000 a year or a border patrol agent earning $34,000 per year.”

President Obama asks federal workers to share the sacrifice, but it’s unconscionable for him to attack the wages of federal working people while the millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street not only get their bailouts and astronomical bonuses; they also get their tax cuts.

Mark Sumner and Scarecrow go into more detail on why this move won’t be helpful to the economy, while Jed Lewison and Chris Bowers look at the political ramifications.


Democracy According to Pat Sajak

Pat Sajak (yes, Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak) thinks that…well, he’s not quite willing to say it straight out, but he thinks we should consider the possibility of taking the right to vote away from public sector workers under some circumstances. Because sometimes they’re voting on things that directly affect their lives. Unlike the rest of us, apparently. (Linking Gawker because I won’t dignify the original source with a link.)

Of course we all have a stake in one way or another in most elections, and many of us tend to vote in favor of our own interests. However, if, for example, a ballot initiative appears that might cap the benefits of a certain group of state workers, should those workers be able to vote on the matter?

He likens this to rules preventing his family and friends from competing on Wheel of Fortune. Because competing on a privately owned game show is just like having a right that in recent generations has been accorded to just about all adult citizens. In any case, Sajak is concerned that state workers might benefit from votes—or actually, as he frames it, they might vote to prevent their benefits from being cut—and that that’s a conflict of interest. So by that logic none of us should be able to vote in an election that might actually affect our lives. Who exactly is left to vote in that case? People who don’t live here?

Sajak has apparently been silent on the issue of anonymous wealthy donors and corporations pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into negative campaign advertisements. So we’ll just have to conclude that it’s only democracy he has a problem with, but he’s just fine with elections being bought.


Myth-Debunking: Are Public Sector Workers Overpaid?

Major and timely new report from EPI (PDF):

The data analysis in this paper, however, indicate that public employees, both state and local government, are not overpaid. Comparisons controlling for education, experience, hours of work, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity and disability, reveal no significant overpayment but a slight undercompensation of public employees when compared to private employee compensation costs
on a per hour basis. On average, full-time state and local employees are undercompensated by 3.7%, in comparison to otherwise similar private-sector workers. The public employee compensation penalty is smaller for local government employees (1.8%) than state government workers (7.6%).

There are, however, substantially different approaches to staffing and compensation between the private and public sectors. On average, state and local public-sector workers are more highly educated than the private-sector workforce; 54% of full-time state and local public sector workers hold at least a four year college degree compared to 35% of full-time private-sector workers. State and local governments pay college-educated labor on average 25% less than private employers. The earnings differential is greatest for professional employees, lawyers, and doctors. On the other hand, the public sector appears to set a floor on compensation. The compensation of workers with a high school education is higher for state or local government employees, when compared to similarly educated workers in the private sector.

Benefits are also allocated differently between privateand public-sector full-time workers in the United States. State and local government employees receive a higher portion of their compensation in the form of employerprovided benefits, and the mix of benefits is different from the private sector. Some benefits are more generous in the public sector, but it is a serious error to imagine that comparability requires that each and every element of compensation is the same. What is important when considering both the employer-provided benefits and direct pay is whether state and local government workers have a total compensation package that costs what they would receive if employed in the private sector. It is the total cost of the compensation package—not the mix of cash and benefits—that is important in making a comparison.

There’s a lot more—it’s a 14-page report—but the significant takeaway is right there at the top: public sector workers are slightly undercompensated (considering pay and benefits) compared with private sector workers.

There’s something else really important in the middle paragraph I quoted, though:

State and local governments pay college-educated labor on average 25% less than private employers. The earnings differential is greatest for professional employees, lawyers, and doctors. On the other hand, the public sector appears to set a floor on compensation. The compensation of workers with a high school education is higher for state or local government employees, when compared to similarly educated workers in the private sector.

I’d argue that floor is a big part of the reason public sector workers are under attack. Corporations have worked long and hard to destroy the compensation floor for workers with high school diplomas, just lower it into the basement. So they really, really don’t want any reminders walking around that a janitor could be paid a living wage. That undermines their whole racket.

The fact that public sector workers are compensated differently helps the anti-worker warriors. They can pick things out selectively, pointing to a pension here, a health care plan there, a raised floor under their feet, and suggest that these combine to create a different picture than they actually do. That’s been a successful tactic for them. But what we need to realize, all of us, is that the end goal is to lower the floor for everyone.


The View from Main Street

Municipal employee layoffs continue around the nation.

In Rochester, NY 116 teachers are getting laid off, at a time when they’d be thinking about going back to work:

Among the layoffs were 9 music teachers, 9 physical education teachers and 9 art teachers. Teachers union president Adam Urbanski said those subjects are not mandated in the primary grades to be taught by certified teachers.

“It’s really a huge, huge blow to education in city schools if music teachers, phys ed teachers, art teachers are eliminated or reduced in the elementary grades,” said Urbanski.

In Yonkers, NY the curious decision has been made to lay off more teachers rather than cut the fall sports program:

After eliminating more than 10 percent of its staff, the district will cut deeper to save high school sports in the fall.

A $43 million shortfall that forced the district to shed staff and programs threatened an elimination of the district’s interscholastic sports, but public objections caused officials to reverse course, at least until the winter sports season.

Yonkers Schools Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio said the reversal would require other sacrifices.

“We will continue with at least the fall sports program. Not to dash the dreams of our young people, so they can compete and continue the camaraderie on and off the athletic field, but it will come at a price,” Pierorazio said.

In the Lenape School District of New Jersey, some jobs were saved:

Despite issuing pink slips to more than 400 employees after its proposed budget was defeated in April, the Lenape Regional High School District laid off only about one-fourth that amount.

The change came after the state education commissioner decided at the end of June on a $138 million 2010-11 budget for the district.

The budget — about $3 million less than last year’s spending plan — includes no teacher layoffs, although it does cut 24 positions through attrition.

In Lynwood, WA the city faces a $21 million budget gap in 2011. The biggest part of the budget is public safety.

In short, there’s a projected gap of about $9 million between the amount of money the police department needs and what’s expected to be available in 2011-12. That number represents about 25 percent of the police department’s share of the two-year budget.

Those projections are sending shockwaves through City Hall.

As many as 23 police department jobs may be cut, including the sole animal control officer, patrol officers, office support staff and more, said Mark Brinkman, president of the Lynnwood Police Guild, which represents the lion’s share of the department’s employees. Cuts of that magnitude “would decimate the department,” Brinkman said.

In the city’s budget has been steadily decreasing for the last 4 years. The finance director expects another $1.5 million budget cut. Voters will be asked to approve an increase in the income tax rate, or a number of city employees will have to be laid off:

Sengstock projects that 43 of the city’s 169 employees would need to be laid off to balance the books at the end of 2011. That includes half the police force, half the fire department and half the service department.

Of course cities and towns aren’t the only ones feeling the budget pinch. A new, rather ominous trend is hospital layoffs.

In Plymouth, MA:

Jordan Hospital has notified 15 veteran employees that their medical transcription jobs will be eliminated next month.

Jeff Hall, spokesman for Local 1199 Service Employees International Union, said the medical recordkeeping jobs are being outsourced to a New Jersey-based company that provides medical transcription services.

The 15 employees were notified of the layoffs last week and will lose their jobs Aug. 14.


News of the layoffs comes just days after South Shore Hospital in Weymouth announced a security breach that resulted in the loss of medical records for up to 800,000 patients and staff. South Shore Hospital has refused to identify the data management company involved in the loss of its records.

Hall said Jordan Hospital cited South Shore’s success in outsourcing medical recordkeeping in proposing the cutbacks last week.

In Hartford, CT:

St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center will lay off about 200 employees in late August, as a shortfall in reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid and a “modest decline” in patients exacerbates an already tight financial picture, the hospital’s chief executive said.


St. Francis, with 572 beds, had a deficit of $31.7 million, or 5.6 percent of its total revenue, in the year ending June 30, 2008, according to a state report. That year, the cost of care that the hospital provided without receiving payment grew from $12.5 million to $15 million. But in fiscal year 2009, St. Francis was in the black, with a 1.8 percent margin, the state Office of Health Care Access reported.

In 2009, as investments recovered and as hospitals slowed the pace of spending, in part by reducing staff through attrition and layoffs, more of the state’s 30 acute-care hospitals were in the black. Sixteen had higher surpluses or profits than St. Francis in fiscal year 2009, and 13 had worse financial performance. A report for the most recent fiscal year is not yet available.

It sounds like they’re downsizing in order to continue to turn a profit.

One extremely important point:

Health care union representatives said that St. Francis has no unionized employees.

In Ashland, KY:

A union official indicated that 85 people were terminated and 150 others reduced to part time status. The cutbacks took effect immediately.

From the statement made by the hospital:

The economic recession has hit our region hard and is lasting longer than anyone expected. KDMC has weathered the economic downturn for two years by minimizing capital expenditures, changing benefits, renegotiating contracts and changing flow processes whenever possible to improve efficiency. However, the harsh reality is that patients are delaying their own healthcare and often those who are receiving the needed care cannot pay forit. Unreimbursed care and bad debt are at an all-time high for our organization — approaching the $100 million mark this year, which is a 33 percent increase over just a year ago. This is a $25 million dollar difference in one year. Cost reductions alone cannot compensate for this change in our community and in our country.

That’s a stark illustration of the actual economic realities being faced around the country. We hear a lot about recovery on Wall St. No one lives on Wall St. The folks who live on Main St. have a very different view.

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High on the Hog?

The Nation has an excellent piece on The War on Public Workers:

Conservatives have declared a new class war, but it’s not on bankers earning seven-figure bonuses. Instead, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels told Politico recently, the “new privileged class in America” is government employees, who “are better paid than the people who pay their salaries.” We have to escape “public sector unions’ stranglehold on state and local governments,” agreed Mort Zuckerman, billionaire editor of U.S. News & World Report, “or it will crush us.” Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot ominously predicts “a showdown looming across the country between taxpayers and public employee unions over pay and pensions,” while the Heritage Foundation warns that “the more the government taxes, the more it can pay its unionized workers.”

This decades-old assault on government employees has acquired new potency at a time of widespread economic suffering and populist rage. But the attacks have little basis in reality. A recent study by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security finds that when such factors as education and work experience are accounted for, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers. Even when public employees’ relatively decent pensions and health coverage are included, their total compensation still lags behind workers in private industry. A separate analysis by the Center for Housing Policy finds that despite recent declines in home prices, police officers and elementary school teachers still don’t earn enough to buy a typical house in two out of five metro areas. Firefighters and librarians are unable to afford the median home in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago metro areas. Nationwide, a school bus driver’s wage isn’t enough to pay rent on a standard two-bedroom apartment.

There’s so much important stuff in there, I’m just going to break that down into bullet points. Conservatives are going after public workers because they’re supposedly paid too well. But:

  • State and local employees earn less than people doing comparable work in the private sector.
  • Police teachers and elementary school teachers can’t afford to buy a home in nearly half of cities.
  • School bus drivers can’t afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

But these are the people we’re supposed to resent, according to conservatives. People driving buses and teaching kids, not bankers and lobbyists. The attacks on public sector workers often include stories of bus drivers making $100,000 per year and the like. Never mind that there are bankers who actively harmed our economy who get more in a bonus than that bus driver makes in a year of driving on crowded streets and getting people to work—what’s the truth of it?

Greater Greater Washington looked at what workers are making in the Washington, DC public transit system.

The average salary for a bus driver is $49,500, and the maximum is $58,600. On average, bus drivers earn an additional $7,400 in overtime pay. Which is to say, they work extra hours to make some extra money. Metro police make more – up to $86,900, and an average of $12,700 in overtime. The $100,000 bus driver wasn’t entirely a myth: four bus drivers and six train operators worked enough overtime to make $100,000 or more. But by far the most common situation would be for someone with years and years on the job to be making a base salary of more like $50,000—or, in the case of janitors, $40,000—and adding $5,000-$10,000 in overtime. Which is, again, extra pay for extra work.

These are the people we’re supposed to resent for their lavish lifestyles? And the people telling us to resent them are well-paid think tank fellows and billionaire media moguls?

It defies logic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t defy belief, because we’ve seen this kind of gall again and again.

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