State workers feel the burn


POSTED: Saturday, June 20, 2009

What is very bothersome about the governor's position to balance the budget on the backs of the 46,000 state workers, their spouses, children and extended families they support is there seems to be an inherent desire to foster or perpetuate resentment between public and private-sector employees, which is absolutely the worst thing that could happen. This should not be about any one side against the other, but should be about keeping the aloha spirit alive.

Everyone should share in the responsibility to balance our budget, not just the 46,000 state workers, but also the nearly 2 million other residents and the 6 million visitors a year who receive services from state workers.

Everyone is forgetting there are two parts to a budget: income and expenses. Yes, the income has declined, but that is not entirely out of the control of our leaders. Just ask Mufi Hannemann how much the income to the City and County of Honolulu increased due to the 0.5 percent increase in the general excise tax for rail. Estimates were from $250 million to $300 million a year. If we can justify a 0.5 percent GET increase to fund rail, why can't our Legislature or governor justify another small 0.5 percent GET increase for two years to help balance the budget and bring in $250 million to $300 million a year?

Is it because raising taxes just sounds like a bad idea? Well, so does raising the price for any service, but businesses often do this when they need to balance their budgets and doing so will not result in a loss of customers.

There are almost no alternatives for the services provided by state workers. This will absolutely affect every citizen. There is no possible way for the state to provide the same level of services with a 15 percent to 18 percent cut in staff time.

A major public relations problem is the information that is intentionally left out of the conversation by the governor and her representatives, which causes the private-sector employees to form an incorrect opinion about state workers.

For example, the “;wonderful”; state benefit package isn't all that it's made out to be. The state's own law limiting the amount a private-sector employer can withdraw of 1.5 percent from an employee's pay to cover medical premiums doesn't apply to the state's own employees. A $40,000-a-year private sector employee would contribute a maximum of $600-a-year, yet the minimum a state employee earning $40,000 must contribute is over $1,000 a year.

With recent increases in medical premiums to the state, our family plan for three people will increase in cost by $2,500 more per year, nearly doubling our share of the premiums. This results in a total cost nearly three times what I paid as a private-sector employee for family medical coverage. Offset this significantly higher medical cost against the additional days off for vacations and holidays that everyone begrudges state employees, and there is very little real benefit difference. It seems the focus should be on negotiating better rates for the 46,000 employees from the insurance providers who do make hefty profits year after year because of allowed increases.

The claim of large pay increases of 16 percent to 29 percent over the past four years ignores the prior nominal increases of 1 percent and 2 percent, at least for the University of Hawaii faculty. Do the research yourself. The UHPA contract averaged only 5 percent annually over the last six year contract, with nominal 1 percent, 2 percent or 3 percent increases for the first three years of the contract. These overall increases were only an attempt to bring faculty up to the 80th percentile with respect to salaries paid to peer institutions on the mainland.

And if anyone believes state workers are highly paid, peruse the current job postings at http://agency.governmentjobs.com/hawaii/eoreport.cfm.

In calculating my spouse's pay reduction on the Hawaii Government Employees Association website today, considering both the furlough and increase in medical costs, there will be an 18.1 percent reduction in his income alone, or over $10,900 per year. I also work for the state and earn basically the same amount, so essentially we could face a $22,000 cut—that's almost the entire amount of our mortgage, and we don't live in Kahala or Hawaii Kai or anyplace nearly as nice as the governor does, and we have to keep paying taxes that pay her living expenses when we won't even be able to pay our own.

Any decrease in income has the same outcome as a tax increase. I wonder why the governor believes an 18-percent tax increase to state employees is acceptable but would not consider a much, much, much smaller tax increase acceptable for all permanent and temporary residents who can share in solving the state's budget crisis?

What a tragedy that state employees are being treated this way when we provide the services to the rest of the citizens. What a disgrace for the rest of the nation to watch how Hawaii, the Aloha State, treats its own employees.

C. Spencer, a state employee, lives in Kapolei.