Even though the fight in Wisconsin is not really about the budget -- a crisis manufactured by Governor Walker's tax cuts and funny numbers -- and not about government employees refusing to make sacrifices (for weeks they have said they will agree to concessions), the scapegoating of public servants as the 21st century's welfare queens is particularly unfair given that they are compensated less than public sector employees.
A February 10 report from the Economic Policy Institute finds that, controlling for higher levels of education, "full-time state and local government employees in Wisconsin are undercompensated by 8.2% compared with otherwise similar private sector workers," even when healthcare and pensions are taken into account. As for the argument that government employees are comparatively overpaid because most stay within the 40-hour workweek, the study finds "when comparisons are made for differences in annual hours worked, the gap remains, albeit at a smaller percentage of 4.8%."
The public-private compensation gap is even wider for college-educated public employees. The report finds that 59% of full-time Wisconsin public-sector workers have at least a four-year college degree (compared to 30% in the private-sector), and that Wisconsin state and local governments and school districts pay college-educated workers on average 25% less than private employers.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Patrick McIlheran makes a lateral attack on the report in an article that manages to be simultaneously concise, convoluted, and condescending. Rather than criticizing the report's findings or methodologies, McIlhren asks rhetorical questions that are answered by reading its summary; rather than make an argument for why government may rely too much on educational credentials when making hiring decisions, McIlhren instead toes the GOP party line and scapegoats public employees for being paid more for being educated more:
The claim that the public is really underpaying its servants -- even though the pay is numerically higher -- rests on this argument: Your employees, dear taxpayers, have nicer college degrees than you and have held onto their jobs longer than you have. So while you're compensating them well, especially with really nice benefits, you're not putting their compensation far enough ahead of you, given how smart and long-term they are.
Education is a personal investment, usually requiring a person to withdraw from the labor market and go into debt in exchange for increased earning potential down the road. A government employer that refuses to adequately compensate for education and experience will not attract or retain the workers that will deliver government services efficiently and effectively. While undercompensation can be offset by the satisfaction government employees derive from working towards the public good, there is a limit to how deep those cuts can go before the public loses its best servants -- which is a great argument for giving public employees a seat at the bargaining table.