Sunday, October 9, 2016

Craig Ford: State employees should be a budget priority in 2017

  Imagine you went for nine years without a pay raise. Now imagine that during those nine years, your boss made you start paying more for your health insurance and retirement plan. Now imagine that your boss laid off about one out of every five of your coworkers, forcing you to do their jobs as well as your own.

  For nearly 30,000 Alabamians, that situation is not something they have to imagine; it’s the reality of their lives.

  Public employees often get a bad rap. They get called “bureaucrats” and are resented by political leaders who see their jobs as “government waste.”

  But public employees provide essential services to our state. Our public employees include law enforcement officers, firefighters, prosecutors, healthcare workers, those who work in the judicial system and local courthouses and drivers license offices, mental health and Medicaid, among many, many others.

  Without these men and women, our state would not be able to function. They are a critical part of our economy, and, in many cases, essential to our public safety and wellbeing. But for far too long, these employees have been neglected.

  The Alabama Legislature has given active teachers a pay raise (education support personnel and retirees were left out, and the raise was erased when the PEEHIP board voted to increase educators’ contributions to their benefits plan), but state employees haven't received a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) pay increase since 2008.

  For a time, our state employees were not even receiving merit pay raises. In fact, those whose salary have “topped out,” and are therefore not eligible for merit raises, are taking home less pay than they were in 2008.

  Since 2008, inflation has continually driven up prices for essential items like food. But while prices are going up, our state employees have watched their salaries stay flat or decline.

  Not only are state employees not seeing any increase in their pay, they are actually taking home less than they were before because of increases in their contributions to their benefits.

  Just like employees in the private sector, public employees have to contribute to their health and retirement plans. But as the cost of healthcare has gone up, the state has forced employees to pay more and more for those benefits, just like those in the private sector have had to do.

  In addition to making less and paying more, our state employees are also being asked to do considerably more and with far fewer resources than they had just a few years ago.

  Since January 2011, we have lost 6,246 state employees. Many of these are people who retired and were never replaced. But just because those positions no longer exists doesn’t mean that somebody else isn’t having to do those jobs. Actually, our current workforce is having to provide more services than we were in 2008.

  That means that our public employees are basically working three jobs: their current job, the job of somebody else who retired or got laid off, and the increased demands coming from state leaders – all while essentially taking a pay cut instead of getting a pay raise.

  It’s true that our state government is financially stretched to the max. It’s almost become a ritual that every year we have to have a special legislative session to fix some funding crisis associated with Medicaid. And, yes, there are things that can be done to reduce costs and save tax dollars. But most of those savings aren’t enough to overcome the inflation that is driving up healthcare costs, which, in turn, drives up government expenses.

  But at some point, we have to make our employees a priority and give them the COLA raise they are due. If we don’t, we may find our government shut down or end up losing good employees who find a better-paying job in the private sector and get replaced by the state with someone who is not qualified or trained to do the job.

  We ask a lot of our state employees, and our state can’t function without these public servants. We cannot afford to continue to ask these men and women to do more with less and for less pay. I can tell you from my experience as a business owner that if you want to make government more efficient, you have to keep up your employees' morale and give them the support they need. That starts by coming into next year’s legislative session and giving our employees a long-overdue COLA pay raise.

  About the author: Representative Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

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