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Q & A: Basic Facts About State and Local Workers


There’s been a lot of controversy lately about public sector workers, as collective bargaining rights have come under fire in states like Ohio and Wisconsin. Unfortunately there’s also been a lot of misinformation in the debate.

Liz McNichol, senior fellow with the Center’s State Fiscal Project, discusses some basic facts about state and local workers:

Liz, let’s start by getting a clearer picture of who state and local government workers are. Can you tell us about that?

The largest share of state and local workers, nearly 7 million people, are the teachers, teacher aides and support staff at elementary, middle and high schools across the country.

Another large category of public workers is the police officers, firefighters and correctional officers protecting our communities.

State and local workers also work at the public colleges, hospitals and clinics across the country.

How has the number of public employees changed in recent years?

Since 1980, the number of public workers as a share of the population has grown modestly. But all of that growth has been in education workers.

The number of workers excluding education has actually shrunk as a share of the population in the last 30 years.

Many people argue that public sector workers are overpaid and make more than private sector workers. How do these salaries actually compare?

The key is to do an apples-to-apples comparison and that means comparing public sector jobs and private sector jobs that require similar amounts of education. When you do that type of comparison, public sector workers are paid 4-11 percent less than their private sector counterparts.

Public jobs are more likely to require higher education and public sector workers are twice as likely to have an advanced degree.

Now, it’s true that public sector workers tend to receive benefits that are more generous than those of their private sector counterparts.

But, even when you factor that in, the total compensation for public sector workers is still less than that of their private counterparts.
Some studies look at just the average pay of all public employees and all private employees and that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

States are facing big budget problems. Some people say that’s because states have to spend a lot on public sector salaries and benefits. Is that the case?

No it isn’t. Because providing services is the primary business of states, as well as school districts, cities, counties and other local governments, it is true that labor costs make up a significant share of their annual spending.

On average about half of local government spending is for employees’ salaries and benefits. For state budgets it’s only about 20 percent. But that’s not the cause of states’ budget problems.

The recession has caused an unprecedented drop in state revenues, leaving states without the resources they need to maintain education, health care, transportation and public safety.

What steps can states take to address their problems?

States should take a balanced approach, one that includes raising revenues and tapping remaining reserves. Relying on cuts alone wouldn’t just hurt families and communities, but would also undermine the economic recovery.

A balanced approach is the better approach.

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