For public-sector employers, how much is too much?
Monday, April 1, 2019
After working with legislators and advocates in the Capitol recently, I found myself thinking about a troublesome set of bills. And with Lori on vacation for a few days last week, it was my job to monitor them.
We have written about some of these bills – HB 2016, HB 3031, SB 726, and SB 764 – before. The bills would all expand the benefits of public-sector employees or increase the responsibilities of public-sector employers. Among other things, the bills would increase employee leave, create paid family leave, require time for labor organization access, make business owners liable for sexual harassment committed at work, and make class size a mandatory subject of bargaining under PECBA. Individually, each bill does a distinct thing or set of things. But as a set, the bills beg the question: How much is enough for public-sector employees? Or, alternatively, how much is too much for public-sector employers?
These questions are rhetorical, but I think they are important. The policy changes in the bills all aim to make the lives of employees better, which is a laudable goal. But all these things will cost money that school districts do not have.
Consider this: Have you asked your business manager or superintendent recently what is your district’s total compensation as a percentage of your budget? If not, I encourage you to do so. It used to be that 75 percent of total compensation was the point when HR managers and business folks started to grumble. Those days are mostly gone. Every district I’m aware of is above 80 percent. Some are passing 82 percent, rapidly headed to 85 percent. If these bills become law, without other changes or new revenue, then those percentages will keep going up, approaching 85 percent or 90 percent. How much is enough for employees? How much is too much for employers?
Part of the problem is that the bills are not being considered as a set. They are in distinct committees, and none of them specifically targets school districts. But school districts will be caught up in the collateral damage if the bills become law. Another part of the problem is the zero-sum game of school funding. A dollar allocated for employee leave, for example, is a dollar missing from textbook updates, or science lab upgrades, or a longer school day, or any number of other things our students need desperately. Along with other public-sector employers, we have tried to bring attention to these problems.
This is not to say that school employees deserve less. Our students deserve the best from our licensed and classified staff, from all the teachers and the counselors, the bus drivers and the facilities managers and the assistant principals, and everyone else in the daily lives of students. The work done by our employees is too important. But how can we focus on the needs of those students if all the resources we have are passed through, gone to something other than the school and the students? How much is enough? How much is too much?