Look at more than public employees’ health benefits

A comprehensive and holistic look at public employee compensation reveals that the political talk driving some public policy proposals is mere myth.

Andrew Cannon

It will not be surprising, in the post-Wisconsin-recall world, if policymakers feel emboldened to challenge public employee compensation. Governor Branstad has already signaled that some of his policy initiatives in the coming years will bear the stamp of Wisconsin. In a June 12, 2012, meeting with Des Moines Register reporters and editors, the Governor said he intends to require public employees to contribute 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance.

If that sounds reasonable — considering that private-sector workers contribute, on average, more than 20 percent of their health insurance premiums — it misses the realities of overall public employee compensation.

While it is true that public employees contribute less on average to their health insurance plans than private-sector workers, they have negotiated the benefit as part of overall compensation packages that, all political hyperbole and “conventional wisdom” aside, typically leave public employees behind their private-sector counterparts. As IPP research has demonstrated, public workers tend to be paid considerably less than similarly educated workers in the private sector. Generally better health insurance benefits do not compensate for the deficiency, so a gap remains.

After controlling for experience, education, and other demographic factors, public-sector employees still receive 6 percent to 8 percent lower overall compensation — that is, pay, health, dental, life and disability insurance, and retirement benefits — than private workers.

A comprehensive and holistic look at public employee compensation reveals that the political talk driving some public policy proposals is mere myth.

Requiring an employee contribution of 20 percent of health insurance premiums is a disguised cut in compensation and amounts to a repudiation of contracts that have been negotiated in good faith between public employees and the state. Furthermore, it would widen the gap between public and private sector pay.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate