Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Public Dole meets Reality

Reality, of course, is the marketplace.

This story is about a conversation I had recently with a woman who had worked in the medical field for twenty years at a state hospital. When the department she worked for was closed down, the slack in services (in the field of sleep therapy, although that has nothing to do with the gist of this tale) was picked up by a privately funded consortium.

The state graciously told her about the demise of her department one year in advance of its closing. They arranged for her to obtain an equivalent job at the new private clinic.


But she was told the one thing that wouldn't transfer is that gold mine of all state workers, that dirty little secret that is cherished among the elite: her accrued sick leave pay. This, she told me despondently, amounted to $60,000.

When state workers retire, see, this gets paid out as a bonus. I have a friend--a longtime state worker--who told me ten years ago he had almost three years' wages accrued. He proudly stated that he was NEVER sick.

Back to the sleep therapist. Upon hearing this her confession, I couldn't help but blurt out, "Whew! As a taxpayer, I'm elated!" Courtesy chuckle, but clearly I didn't really understand.

Clearly she didn't understand either. When the state claims it needs to attract serious, competitive workers to its many agencies, it argues that in order to do so it must pay the workers a competitive wage. Competitive with the marketplace, that is. What a hoot that is, eh? What backward, archaic thinking would conclude that state workers should only make what the schmucks in the marketplace make?!

Well, there you have it. By leaving the state job, this worker had her income adjusted to fit more closely what the market would bear. Actually, in the medical field even that is a joke, given that modern day health insurance is but socialized medicine in field dress. But you get my drift.

Cut to a conversation I had today with my wife, who now has assumed her rightful place on the public dole as a state registered nurse. When she got the job, her first week--her first PAID week--was mostly taken up with being introduced to the cascade of benefits and the many manifestations of which she must understand and select from. It was embarassing. After twenty years of one-income homeschooling, doing for ourselves in dozens of different ways, we hit the mother lode. Paid vacations! HEALTH insurance! Disability and life insurance bennies! SICK DAYS! Personal days!

So, the conversation. I related the story of the sleep therapist. Deb then told of one of her co-workers, one who had been Doling for many a year (See footnote), who developed strep throat and had to claim some sick days for what they actually were for. One of her supervisors came up to her when she returned and gently remonstrated with her for the lost time. Implicit in the criticism was that the lost time was lost from her retirement! An investment opportunity, now forever gone.

This mindset is very understandable. So is the penchant for playing the system. But now and then people need to be told that, however well they've feathered their nests, it is eventually a house of cards that will collapse if not on them then on their progeny. Sooner or later, the market will come back to bite even the state worker.

Maybe the department they work for will close. But the other benefit that I am vaguely aware of is one which is a function of time, and time alone. The longer you work for the state, the less able the state is to put you off their payroll. You get bumped. At least, that's the word leaking down from on high. I'll have to delve into the encyclopedia of benefits Deb brought home to understand it in its finer points.

FN: Now don't go getting in a huff because I'm dissing state workers. I am not saying that there is a lack of competent, talented, hard-working, devoted workers in the state agencies. Both Deb and my other friend are all of those things. My point is simply that government's rewards system has outpaced the public sector's reward system in spades.

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