Press Talk: Looking for that level field

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian editor

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photoLou Brancaccio
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They shop for oranges and onions.

They send their children off to college and hope good fortune and health await them.

They work hard every day providing services they hope others will appreciate.

They eventually grow old and hope they live a comfortable life when they retire.

They are our friends, neighbors and relatives. They are good people. They only make up about 20 percent of the workforce. My wife is one of them. Has been for almost her entire working life.

They are governmental workers.

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From time to time, I note here the differences between what governmental workers get and what private workers get.

My words are intended to create engagement and conversation. But they create angst for some.

This e-mail came from Julie M. She worked for the state for 25 years.

“I was able to support two children as a single mother without having a bachelor’s degree. Do you have a problem with government employees not having to scrounge to support their kids?”

I replied to Julie and thanked her for the comment.

“I have nothing against state workers,” I said. “I’m simply looking for a level playing field.”

And the evidence is mounting that the playing field is not level.

“Public and private workers increasingly live in separate economies.”

That’s the way Time magazine described it in a recent cover story.

Critics will say governmental workers are paid more because they are -- overall -- better educated, and most jobs in the government require this better education.

USA Today took up that challenge and did an analysis that showed when comparing federal jobs with private jobs, 8 in 10 of those jobs were better paid on the federal level.

Then there was a report from the Washington State Employment Security Department. It analyzed job categories.

On the local level, for example, the report identified 290 job categories to compare. Of those, 194, or 67 percent, paid more in the governmental sector. This was especially true for jobs that didn’t require a four-year college degree.

The state report did not include benefits and retirement. But there, everyone agrees, governmental workers have it better than private workers.

I went on to tell Julie there is something inherently wrong with what’s at play here. Governmental jobs seem to have better pay, better benefits and better retirement.

“You definitely have some good points, Lou,” Julie said.

In the end, governmental workers are not to be blamed for all they have received. It is the elected officials who negotiate for the government that the spotlight should be turned on.

So be kind to your neighbor who is a governmental worker. But be skeptical of your elected officials.

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor. Reach him at 360-735-4505 or lou.brancaccio@columbian.com.