Changing state employee benefits

Disclaimer:  I am a state employee who works in Higher Education.


I understand that state employees get a lot of  bad press.  I understand that a lot of people are angry when they hear about all of the people who get jobs through connections, and get raises beyond what private employees get, etc.  But, MOST state employees do not fall into this category.  I am one of those state employees, who is a member of a union, and I know I shouldn’t take all of the comments trashing teachers personally.  However, it is very disheartening for public employees, many of whom work in the the public sector because they believe in helping the most disadvantaged citizens, to feel as if they are paying for the evils of those who make millions and billions of dollars (wall street, Blue Cross/Blue Shield CEO’s) whose selfishness and unethical behavior have brought this recession, high health care costs, etc. upon taxpayers.  How much of our budget crisis has been caused by state employee benefits and how much has been caused by the crash?  Aren’t the stock market crash and the subsequent recession two of the major causes of the pension fund’s shortfall in recent years?  Isn’t  our budget  in trouble primarily because we are taking in less taxes because people are out of work?  Why do people jump to solving the State’s fiscal shortfall  on the backs of state workers?  As a democrat, don’t you think that it would be refreshing to suggest that the state be taking the lead in bringing back the “good ol’ days” that our parents experienced – those days of good health benefits and a pension.  Retirement accounts that do not disappear when the stock market crashes the way that 401k’s ;403B’s; etc. do?  Are we naive enough to think that the businesses who brought us to this tenuous economic state want to share any of the pie with the workers?  Is that what the state is buying int0?  Follow the selfish and misguided lead of the private sector?

Here is this state employee’s story.  I write this as much to the readers of this site as to you, Will.  I am exhausted and disheartened by the bias against teachers and other lower-middle and middle class folks who WORK VERY HARD for the state and local municipalities.  After you have read my true story – and get a more balanced picture of the “luxury” of working for the State, you may reconsider your views about State workers.  You may think it might be a bit unfair to jump on the bandwagon of the greedy state employee’s.  If not, please, feel free to solve the state’s financial crisis on my back and the backs of so many other workers just like me…

I have  Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from two of the most highly competitive schools in the nation.  I worked outside of the state system for 20 years before I started working for a state school.  When I was hired in the late 1990’s, after teaching as an adjunct at three local private  private college and conservatories, I accepted a job that paid me $33K, teaching 4 courses per semester at a community college.  Most people with my level of experience, education and training (my friends, in the private sector) were making over $80K and were teaching 4 courses or less PER YEAR.   This was a choice that I made.  My grandparents were poor, intelligent people. They did not have the resources to go to college.  I knew how much getting an education could improve someone’s life.  I felt fortunate to have access to the life my education had afforded me. I wanted to give something back. I was happy to earn a bit less.  I knew I could live on the salary I was offered at the time.  I also accepted the job at the lower pay rate because the salary, combined with the benefits, offered what I decided would be a good quality of life for me and my family.  Things have changed A LOT since the late 1990’s!

Two years into my job at this school, my “greedy” union negotiated a pay raise, that was linked to an increase in course load, in order to bring Massachusetts Higher Ed. teachers in line with those really expensive states like, oh, Texas and Alabama. (Sarcasm)  So, for a 25% raise, I took on 25% more work = NO RAISE!

Over the next three years, contributions to health care went up = less take home pay.  When it was time to negotiate the next contract, the governor (Celucci?  Swift?  Romney? – one of those great supporters of public education) refused to sign it – we went 2 years with no contract and NO RAISE.   We finally got a contact and a 3% raise, but lost two years, as the Governor refused to give us our raises retroactively.  In those two years without a contract, health care contributions went up = less take home pay.

Three years later, the Governor signed our contract, and we got a 3% raise – most people in the private sector were getting raises in the range of 8 – 11%. Mmmm?  But…I still had those good benefits!

Three years later the Governor signed our contract, but it was not funded because of the recession. No Raise, again.  There is a recession, okay, we will do our part.  The state is in trouble we will postpone our HUGE 1.5% raise for 2 years.  (At least we still have jobs, right?)  Oh, yes, jobs…I have a second job now because I cannot afford to pay my bills on what the state pays me because my town now makes me pay for services that my public school used to provide for all students, my health care costs have increased yearly, and the price of things like gas, food, and all of those other “luxuries” have increased so much that I need to either get another job or start charging these necessities on a credit card. We’re not doing so well in the “quality of life arena!”

In 3 months I am scheduled to get a 1.5% raise.  Over the next 2 years, I will get a 1.75% raise and then a 3.5% raise.   But, over the 13 years I have worked for the state, my take home has decreased, not increased.  My HUGELY POPULATED classrooms (the enrollments are at record highs , because many families can no longer afford private schools) is increasingly filled with people who are angry, frustrated and sometimes unstable.  I now serve as a, social worker, and job trainer more often than an educator.

I have many wonderful dedicated students who do not get the education they are paying for for two reasons:

1.  I am exhausted and cannot physically do all the prep I would hope to do for my classes.  I also cannot give students any “extra” time beyond my contracted hours – as I used to when I had only one job – because I have to spend my time at a second job.

2.  I have too many needy students who take up my time with social issues that should not be dealt with in a classroom setting.  Numerous students have personal issues that they bring to the classroom with them. These issues are much more severe than most people imagine.  Some of our most challenged students are in college without the social supports that they need to succeed. I will give you two examples (of about 10 per semester):  (1) I was told to f*** myself by a student  and then had a chair thrown at me.  I was forced to keep this student in my class.  The student had numerous issues and I was told this student had a “right” to be in the classroom and could not be removed. The administration felt a great need to “help” him and just “get him through” the remainder of the semester. (2)  In the classroom next to mine, a student who was making another student uncomfortable in the classroom was asked to move away from her.  He became hostile, punched a colleague in the face and had to be restrained by campus police.

I need good health insurance – all teachers do…the reasons are pretty obvious.

And as far as those hours worked goes.  I am on break now.  I will spend this week correcting midterms and prepping for the remainder of the semester.  I am in the classroom 15 hours per week.  On average, I spend another 10 hours per week in office hours and on-line responding to students.  After I put my son to be at 8PM, I work most evenings until midnight, and I work least 6 hours per day on most weekends.

During my summer “vacation” I  do professional development; read and do research to stay current in my field; and work on course preparation.  I admit, I usually do take a 2 WEEK VACATION with my family each summer.  And I do take one week during the semester break.  Yes, my life is luxurious.  So, please, settle the state’s fiscal crisis by raising my health care contribution and decreasing my retirement.  I deserve no less for being fool enough to believe that a good deed (like taking a lower paying state job – with the “luxury” of some good benefits- in order to support public higher education – and give our least advantaged citizens a shot at a high quality education and a better life) should go unpunished.  Shame on me.  Shame on my bleeding heart liberalism.

Do I seem angry?  I am!  The teachers, bus drivers, toll workers, cafeteria workers, etc. who work for the state did not cause this fiscal crisis.  They should not have to fix it.  We do “our part” through the high income years and the low income years.  When the economy booms – we do not reap the benefits like those who work in the private sector.  But we have always exchanged those “perks” for steady employment with very good benefits.  I wonder what kind of teachers we will attract in the future?  Certainly not the best and the brightest.  Certainly not anyone who wants to support their family working one job and hopes to send their children to a competitive college.  I wonder?



2 replies on “Changing state employee benefits”

  1. Hi Kate,

    Yes, I do understand that those in higher public education are among those feeling a hard squeeze right now.

    It’s across the board — there are some obvious exceptions, but for the majority of workers in the private sector, real wages have been flat to down for many years now.

    That’s why there is a lot of anger out there on all sides.

    We are in tough times.

    Thanks for speaking out.

  2. Will, I have not written because your beliefs about this issue have been so frustrating and disappointing. There is no question that healthcare costs are a fiscal burden. They are primarily a burden to the many individuals and families who lack adequate healthcare coverage because they and their employers cannot afford the full coverage that all of us should have. They are also high because rather than do the work of challenging the ways that capitalist production and consumption lead to a range of morbidities and premature mortality, we choose instead to make medicine a profit making enterprise and invest in treatments and cures rather than prevention.

    So long as we cannot commit ourselves to single-payer,universal access to high-quality healthcare and public health, then all workers in this society deserve the right to bargain for the quality of care and degree of payment they seek. The problem is that Massachusetts, even with its health insurance system, is committed to a system of healthcare for those who can afford it – at the level that they can afford – with all the inherent disparities that result from that.

    I find your position on this, in line with the MMA, to be unjust and discriminatory. You, no doubt, do not see it that way. That’s where we differ. I would much rather that you adopt the goal that the governor of Vermont has adopted – to commit to a fair and equitable system of health insurance that eliminates the diversity of payers. I realize that there are unique conditions that make that more viable in Vermont than Massachusetts, but working toward that goal makes much more sense than clobbering public sector workers.

    I also completely disagree with your ridiculous statements about the lack of fairness that public sector workers now get better health benefits than many private sector workers. If Massachusetts wants all of its residents to have equal access to healthcare, then let’s set a system that ensures that, rather than taking away what some have worked so hard to attain.

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