Public Sector Unions Spend $4.0 Billion per Year in U.S.

March 23, 2012

In an earlier post, “Public Sector Unions & Political Spending,” we tried to estimate political spending by public sector unions in California. The top-down analysis used was straight-forward and conservative: assume 1.0 million unionized public sector workers, times average dues of $750 per year, times one-third (the proportion of dues used for political activity), and voila, public sector unions spend $250 million per year in California to influence elections at the federal, state, and local level. No wonder the politicians in California do whatever they’re told to do by the very government workers they are supposedly elected to manage. And no wonder California is broke.

One might challenge the estimate that one-third of public sector union dues in California go to support political activity. But for public sector unions, the distinction between political and non-political spending is largely irrelevant. Because virtually every expenditure by a public sector union, whether it is collective bargaining, lobbying, contributions to candidates, independent expenditures, or educational outreach, has one primary goal: The expansion of their membership and the expansion of the pay and benefits for their members.

From this perspective, California’s public sector unions are not deploying $250 million per year to influence the political process in support of their agenda, they are deploying at least $750 million per year. How much is being spent across the United States by public sector unions to pursue this same agenda?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 12.2 million local government employees across the United States. There are 4.4 million state government employees, and there are 2.6 million non-military federal government employees. In all, 19.2 million American’s, excluding military, work for the government.

According to a report released in January 2012 by the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics that surveyed union membership in the United States in 2011, there are 7.6 million government workers belonging to labor unions, about 39%. If you include those government workers who are required to belong to a bargaining unit as a condition of their employment, but managed to opt-out of full union membership, there are 8.3 million government workers who belong to unions in the United States.

Determining the total revenue available to public sector unions in the United States each year is a simple matter of multiplying the total number of government union members in the U.S. by the average dues they are required to pay each year. An excellent recent study authored by Daniel DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and professor of political science at The City College of New York, entitled “Dues and Deep Pockets: Public-Sector Unions’ Money Machine,” provides several sources of data on this question. Based on analysis of several representative samples from across the U.S. and across job descriptions, DiSalvo estimates the average annual dues for a government union member at $500, an amount he acknowledges is probably conservative. This means, at the least, public sector unions in the United States are collecting and spending $4.0 billion per year to pursue their agenda.

Because these unions represent public sector workers, their agenda is explicitly political. Whether they are bargaining over work rules, pay and benefits, or actually engaging in political lobbying and campaigning, they are deploying $4.0 billion per year to influence how our government is operated.

The consequences of this level of influence are manifold. Government workers, despite having greater job security, greater access to health care, and far more generous paid vacation benefits than private sector taxpayers, now make as much or more than private sector workers; in fact, the average base pay for a government worker – not including benefits – now exceeds private sector averages by over 50%. For California, we have documented this in previous California Policy Center studies such as “Calculating Public Employee Total Compensation,” and similar disparities exist across the U.S. And probably the most obvious, and biggest, disparity between public sector and private sector compensation is with respect to pensions, where the average government worker retires 10-15 years earlier than the average private sector worker, and receives a pension that averages 2-3x more per year than what a private sector worker can expect from social security.

There is nothing wrong with paying government workers well. But disparities of this magnitude carry a crippling economic cost, and can’t possibly be extended to all workers. For example, in California there are approximately 10 million people over the age of 55. If all of them received the average pension currently issued to state and local workers in California after 30 years of work, which is over $65,000 per year, that would cost $650 billion per year, nearly 40% of California’s entire gross domestic product.

Public sector unions have quietly become the most powerful force in politics in the United States, not only because they spend more than any other significant actor, but because until recently, their efforts have been completely unopposed. Corporate political expenditures are almost always limited to the narrow economic interests of each corporation or industry, and almost always balanced by expenditures by a competing corporation or competing industry. Historically, no special interest group has ever arisen to effectively oppose public sector unions.

Over the past century the character of unions in the United States has changed completely. They have converted from being the courageous underdog, representing the downtrodden and underpaid working class, to the biggest, meanest dog in the pit, representing the overpaid political ruling class. The core agenda of government worker unions, backed by at least $4.0 billion per year in cold hard cash that, ultimately, originates from taxpayers, is intrinsically oriented towards bigger government – more programs, more regulations, more pay and benefits, more workers – regardless of the cost or benefit to society.

Self-Employed Workers vs. Government Workers – A Financial Comparison

February 24, 2012

When discussing what level of compensation is appropriate and affordable for government workers, it is helpful to make apples-to-apples comparisons between public and private sector workers. In this analysis, the ultimate private sector taxpayer, the self-employed worker, is compared to the typical state or local government employee in California. In both cases, the annual compensation used for comparison is $70,000, which is the average base salary paid to state and local government employees in California (ref. U.S. Census data for California: State, and Local). But the impact of benefits paid by the government employer, combined with the impact of mandatory employee contributions (taxes, retirement set-asides, and healthcare costs), yield dramatically different end results in terms of total net compensation. Both the self-employed worker and the government worker make $70,000 per year. But to say they make the same amount of money is grossly misleading.

The table below, “Total Compensation – Gov’t vs. Self-Employed Worker,” begins to illustrate this disparity. The difference between total compensation and gross earnings in the case of the self-employed worker is zero. There is nobody paying for benefits beyond what the self-employed person earns. Whatever amenities they need to purchase, they have to pay for out of their gross earnings.

In the case of the government worker, there are a host of employer funded benefits; only the basic ones are covered here, using conservative assumptions. If it is assumed the average household health insurance coverage is $500 per month, and the employer pays 50% of that, this adds $3,000 per year to the total compensation of a government worker. In reality, factoring in employer coverages of medical, dental and vision plans, it is very unlikely the average government worker doesn’t get well in excess of $3,000 per year in employer health care benefits.

Current expenses for health care, however, are not the only health expenses that governments pay for their workers. Typically there are provisions for retirement health care coverage that are taken on as obligations by the government for their workers. For example, there are “medigap” plans, with all or part of the premiums paid for by the government. In some cases, such as with most safety employees and management employees, the government pays 100% of the premiums for lifetime premium health insurance plans. These future obligations must be funded during current employment. To estimate another $2,000 per year for this cost, or, more generally, to estimate $5,000 per year per employee for the average government contribution to current and retirement health care, is definitely conservative.

In addition to healthcare costs, state and local government employers cover pension benefits for which much of the costs – and in many cases 100% of the costs – are paid by the government, not the employee. If one assumes a contribution by the government employer of only 12% of gross salary per year – clearly lower than reality – this adds another $8,400 to the total compensation of a government worker.

A simmering question regarding pensions for government workers – how much can these pension funds really earn each year in interest – generates the next estimate. In our analysis “How Much Could California’s Government Pensions Cost Taxpayers,” along with “What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent,” we have explored the underlying calculations in depth. The reader is invited to review those calculations and assumptions. But the bottom line is this: If pension funds have to lower their long-term expected rate of return by 2.0%, and they will, this will add at least $11,200 per year to the cost of funding the average pension. These obligations may be scaled back, but until they are, this amount must be included when adding up the total compensation of the average government employee in California.

Taking all of this into account, a self-employed person making $70,000 per year makes $70,000 per year. A government worker making $70,000 per year in base pay is actually making $94,600 per year in total compensation, 35% more. But it doesn’t end there.

The next table, below, examines the impact of what might best be described as “mandatory employee contributions,” taking the form of the employee share of health insurance coverage, retirement pensions and social security, along with state and local taxes. Once these mandatory contributions are deducted from the income (before tax in the case of health care and retirement contributions) of both the self-employed and the government worker, and the employer provided benefits – which are tax-free – are added back to the income of the government worker, the disparity between their actual net total compensation becomes even more dramatic.

If one assumes that the self-employed person is going to purchase health insurance for their household, they will pay 100% of the premium. Using the same assumptions, this means they will spend $6,000 per year for these benefits, whereas the government worker, paying 50% of the premium, will only spend $3,000 per year.

By participating in social security and medicare as a self-employed person, they are obligated to pay both the employee and the employer share of those assessments, which at a gross annual income of $70,000 will cost them $10,500 per year. By contrast, even if the government worker pays 10% of their salary into their pension – a level that is still fairly unusual to see among government workers – this will only cost them $7,000 per year.

In the above table, “Net Total Compensation – Gov’t vs. Self-Employed Worker,” these before tax deductions are subtracted from their base annual salary to arrive at their taxable annual salary. This taxable amount then has deducted from it what a California household in 2011 would have to pay in state and federal taxes. Finally, the non-taxable employer contributions are added back to the actual take-home pay to yield the net total compensation after mandatory contributions.

This is the apples-to-apples result: A self-employed person making $70,000 per year, once they’ve paid their taxes. social security and insurance premiums, will enjoy compensation of $45,021 per year. A government worker making $70,000 per year, once they’ve paid their taxes, pension contribution and insurance premiums, with the value of their current and deferred benefits added back, will enjoy compensation of $74,781 per year, 66% more.

It doesn’t end there. As shown on the next table, “Retirement Security – Gov’t vs. Self-Employed Worker,” the self-employed worker, who must pay $10,500 per year for social security and medicare, can expect to retire at the age of 66 with a social security benefit of $20,144 per year. The government worker, who must pay $7,000 per year for their pension, can expect to retire at the age of 60 with a pension of $46,666 per year. The total value of these respective retirement benefits, based on a life-span of 80, is $282,016 for the self-employed worker, and $933,324 for the government worker.

It is important to emphasize how conservative these numbers are. While the average pay of a government worker in California is only about $70,000 per year, the average pension for state and local government workers in California is not $46K per year, but nearly $70K per year. For state and local government workers who retire at age 66 and spend their careers in government service, the average pension is nearly $100K per year (ref. CalPERS Annual Report FYE 6-30-11, page 153, and CalSTRS Annual Report FYE 6-30-11, page 149). This means the assumptions used to calculate pension contributions at various rates of return, which assumed pensions equivalent to 66% of average salary, are obviously inadequate. This is because pensions aren’t calculated on average salary, they’re calculated on final salary. The assumptions underlying our pension contribution estimates also don’t take into account the current state of underfunding for pensions.

For a self-employed person to enjoy a net total compensation equivalent to the average government employee who makes “only” $70,000 per year, they would have to earn well in excess of $100,000 per year, particularly since as they climb in gross income, they encounter higher and higher tax brackets. A self employed person who makes less than $108,000 per year and more than $74,000 per year, because their income is still under the social security withholding ceiling, actually pays taxes at the margin of over 50%. But that is a topic for another post.

How Much Could California's Government Pensions Cost Taxpayers?

January 27, 2012

This week both of California’s largest government employee pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, released their portfolio earnings numbers for the most recent twelve months. In a statement released on January 24th, “CalSTRS Calendar Year-End Investment Returns Show Slight Gains,” CalSTRS disclosed “Investment returns for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) ended the 2011 calendar year posting a 2.3 percent gain.” CalPER’s statement released on January 23rd, was titled “[CalPERS} Pension Fund earns 1.1 percent return for 2011 calendar year.”

These funds, and the rest of California’s many local government employee pension funds, are still clinging to long-term rate of return assumptions of between 7.5% and 7.75% per year. So how much would taxpayers be on the hook for if rates of return stay this low?

The first step towards determining this would be to estimate the average pension paid out to a state or local worker in California, based on recent retirees who have worked a full 30 year career. Despite the claim that “The average CalPERS pension is $2,220 per month” (made yet again in the final paragraph of their above-referenced press release), for a more accurate figure, one must look at the average pension awarded recent retirees, based on a full 30+ year career. The problem with the low figure used by CalPERS and others is that it includes people who retired decades ago when salaries and pension benefit formulas were much lower, and it includes people who may have only worked a few years for the government. Since we will be multiplying this average pension by the number of full time state and local government workers in California, we have to assume a full career when calculating the average pension, since for every worker who only worked 10 years, for example, two additional retirees will also be in the system who have themselves also only worked 10 years. To calculate the cost of a full-career pension, you have to add all three of these part-career retirees together. Here is what these pensions really average, based on CalPERS Annual Report FYE 6-30-11 (page 153), and CalSTRS Annual Report FYE 6-30-11, (page 149):

CalPERS average final salary for 30 years work, retiring 2010: $82,884
CalPERS average pension for 30 years work, retiring 2010: $60,894  –
Pension equals 73% of final salary (average of 25-30 year and 30+ year stats)

CalSTRS average final salary for 30 years work, retiring 2010: $88,164
CalSTRS average pension for 30 years work, retiring 2010: $59,580  –
Pension equals 68% of final salary (average of 25-30 year and 30-35 year stats)

If one extrapolates the CalPERS and CalSTRS data to the many independent pension funds serving local agencies – many of these are quite large, such as the one for Los Angeles County employees – it is probably conservative to peg the average pension going forward for full-career government workers in California at at least $60,000 per year, and at least 70% of final salary.

The next step in figuring out how much state and local government worker pensions could cost California’s taxpayers in the future is to establish the sensitivity of pension contribution rates to changes in the rate of return of pension funds. The California Policy Center has explored this question repeatedly, with a good summary in the July 2011 study entitled “What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent?” Using the same financial assumptions as were used in that analysis, here is how the required pension contribution rates – expressed as a percent of payroll – change in response to lower earning rates for the pension funds. This is based on pensions averaging 70% of final salary, and assumes 30 years working, 25 years retired, and salary (in real dollars) eventually doubling between hire date and retirement date:

If the pension fund’s return is 7.75%, the contribution rate is 22% of payroll.
If the pension fund’s return is 6.75%, the contribution rate is 28% of payroll.
If the pension fund’s return is 5.75%, the contribution rate is 37% of payroll.
If the pension fund’s return is 4.75%, the contribution rate is 48% of payroll.
If the pension fund’s return is 3.75%, the contribution rate is 63% of payroll.

What the above figures quickly indicate is not only that the required payroll contributions go up sharply when projected rates of investment return come down, but that the lower the rate of return goes, the more sharply the required contribution rises.

To complete this analysis, one only needs to multiply the number of full time state and local government employees in California by the average payroll for these employees, and multiply that result by the various required contribution rates. Using 2010 U.S. Census data for California’s State Employees and for California’s Local Government Employees, one can quickly determine that there are 339,430 state workers earning on average $68,880 in base annual salary, and there are 1,185,935 local government workers earning on average $69,399 in base annual salary.

To sum this up, there are currently 1,525,365 full time (not “full-time equivalent,” which would be an even higher number, but those part-time employees may or may not have pension benefits) state and local government employees in California. They earn, on average, $69,284 per year in base pay. Here is how much pensions will cost for these workers each year based on various rates of return:

If the pension fund’s return is 7.75%, the state pays $23 billion to pension funds each year.
If the pension fund’s return is 6.75%, the state pays $29 billion to pension funds each year.
If the pension fund’s return is 5.75%, the state pays $39 billion to pension funds each year.
If the pension fund’s return is 4.75%, the state pays $51 billion to pension funds each year.
If the pension fund’s return is 3.75%, the state pays $66 billion to pension funds each year.

It is interesting to note that both CalPERS and CalSTRS failed to even achieve a 3.75% return in calendar year 2011, the lowest amount used in these examples and the lowest amount that can even keep pace with inflation.

When one takes into account the fact that only about five million households in California pay net taxes, the impact of the pension con job Wall Street brokerages have enlisted the support of public sector unions to foist onto taxpayers is even more dramatic. Because if, during the great deleveraging that likely will consume this economy for at least another decade, California’s pension funds only deliver 3.75% per year, instead of 7.75% per year, that will translate into $8,600 per year in new taxes for each and every taxpaying California household.

Which Special Interests Are Partisan?

December 15, 2011

An analysis we published earlier this year, “Is Union Reform Partisan,” documented the fact that about 95% of political contributions by unions go to the Democratic party. But is corporate political spending is less partisan than union political spending? Equally important, to what extent does corporate political spending outweigh political spending by unions?

Parsing data from, again, “a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit research group tracking money in U.S. politics,” what follows is information on all of the top 100 political spenders during the eleven election cycles between 1990 through 2010. These top 100 are divided into four categories; corporate, financial, union, and grassroots. The results were quite surprising, as summarized on the chart below:

The data used to generate these numbers comes from’s “Top All-Time Donors, 1990-2010” table, which were downloaded onto spreadsheets and sorted into the four categories noted, while retaining in the far left column the rank of each contributor within the top 100. So the reader may view the assumptions, all four of these tables constitute the remainder of this post.

Readers are invited to mull the implications of these findings regarding the top 100 political spenders of the last 20 years in America:

1 – The corporate and financial sectors combined did outspend unions, by a ratio of almost exactly 2-to-1.

2 – Unions spent 95% of their contributions on Democrats.

3 – The corporate sector spent 56% of their contributions on Republicans, and the financial sector spent 53% of their contributions on Republicans. Their spending between the two parties was essentially nonpartisan.

4 – Overall, among the top 100 political spenders of the last 20 years, Democrats collected 62% of the takings, and Republicans only collected 38%.

It remains open to interpretation which party might be more beholden to special interests…

Here is the data:

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California's Public Safety Compensation Trends, 2000-2010

Today’s Wall Street Journal published an article by Phil Izzo entitled “Bleak News for Americans’ Income,” where, citing U.S. Census Data, it was reported that U.S. median household income – adjusted for inflation – fell by 7% over the past ten years. In constant 2010 dollars, the average household in the U.S. saw their income drop from about $54,000 per year in 2000 to just under $50,000 today.

When debating what level of compensation is appropriate and affordable for public safety personnel, the average income of private sector workers is an important baseline. It provides context for determining whether or not the premium paid to public safety employees – for the risks they take – is exorbitant or fair. The trend of the past ten years is also an important baseline when making this comparison. For example, if the level of risk, the value we place on safety and security, and the degree of training required for public safety personnel have all elevated over the past decade – and they have – does this justify their pay increases exceeding the rate of inflation? Even over this past decade, when ordinary private sector workers have seen their total pay and benefits decrease by 7% relative to inflation?

Here then, also relying on U.S. Census data (ref. 2010 Public Employment and Payroll Data, State Governments, California, and 2010 Public Employment and Payroll Data, Local Governments, California, along with 2000 Public Employment and Payroll Data, State Governments, California, and 2000 Public Employment and Payroll Data, Local Governments, California), are the rates of base pay and pension obligations for California’s public safety personnel in 2000 (adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2010 dollars), and 2010, starting with Firefighters:

Several points on the table above bear explanation. These numbers reference firefighters who, typically, work 24 hour fire suppression shifts, and do not include administrative personnel. These work schedules usually involve three 24 hour shifts on duty, followed by six days off. If a firefighter works more than three out of every nine days, they receive overtime, which is included in these numbers. Worth noting is that when adjusting for vacation, the average mid-career firefighter in California works two 24 hours shifts every seven days, earning overtime for whatever extra days they work beyond that. Not included in these figures are any current benefits, including health insurance, or funding set-asides to cover retirement health insurance. We published a complete work-up of the total compensation of firefighters in August 2010 in a post entitled “California Firefighter Compensation.” In that analysis, the total compensation of the average Sacramento firefighter was estimated at $180,000 per year.

It is also important to explain the rationale behind the higher pension costs (as a percent of salary) between 2000 and 2010. It was around 2000, and for several years afterward, that the “2.0% at 50″ benefit for public safety personnel was changed to the current “3.0% at 50″ formula – retroactively. The so-called “2.0% at 50″ formula meant that a firefighter was eligible to retire at any time after turning 50 years old, and would receive a pension equivalent to the number of years they worked, times 2.0%, times the salary they earned in their final year working. The “3.0% at 50″ formula increased this benefit, logically, by 50%. A firefighter now can retire any time after turning 50 years of age with a pension equivalent to the number of years they worked, times 3.0%, times the salary they earned in their final year working. The numbers shown on this table and the others, which represent the funding requirements per year expressed as a percent of salary, reflect the 50% increase required. These percentages assume 30 years working and 25 years retired, and they assume CalPERS will continue to earn 7.75% per year on their investments – 4.75% after adjusting for inflation. These are very conservative numbers, and indeed, most government agencies already set aside more than this into public safety pension funds. For much more on these calculations, refer to our analysis “What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent?,” posted in July 2011.

Here are pay and pension trends between 2000 and 2010 for California’s police officers:

And here they are for California’s correctional officers:

Here is a summary of this data: During the decade between 2000 and 2010, a period when, adjusting for inflation, household income for private sector workers fell by 7.0%, California’s firefighters saw their pay and pension benefits (after adjusting for inflation) increase by 33%, police officers saw their pay and pension benefits increase by 28%, and corrections officers saw their pay and pension benefits increase by 19%.

The next table attempts to quantify these costs in terms of their impact on California’s taxpaying households. While there are 12 million households in California, once you eliminate the nearly 50% of households who pay no net taxes, and the 15% (estimate) of households whose primary income comes from a government job, you’re down to about 5 million households.  Corporate taxes, which presumably could cover some of these costs, are passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices. And these costs do not include anything other than pay and pensions – none of the other payroll overhead.

The above figures, all extrapolated from the data presented on the previous charts or from the U.S. Census Bureau’s tables linked to earlier, show salary and pension costs for California’s nearly 200,000 public safety personnel, expressed in billions. The first figure, $21.8 billion, is the estimated amount currently expended per year for base pay (including overtime) plus pension funding. The second figure, $25.2 billion, shows how much that amount will increase if CalPERS lowers their pension fund return on investment projection from 7.75% to 5.75%. The third figure, $17.4 billion, is how much base pay and pension funding for public safety employees would cost taxpayers in California if their base pay and pension benefits had merely kept pace with inflation, instead of escalating at a rate between 19% (correctional officers), 28% (police officers), or 33% (firefighters) greater than the past decade’s inflation. Finally, the fourth figure, $16.2 billion, shows how much taxpayers would pay to fund public safety base pay and benefits in California if, instead of increasing their pay and benefits during a period when everyone else was getting paid less, they took 7% cuts to their pay and benefits – i.e., did not see their income rise quite as fast as the rate of inflation.

Between 2000 and 2010, not only public safety personnel, but all state and local employees in California saw increases to their pay and benefits that exceeded the rate of inflation. The reasons for the decline in real income in the private sector are many and complex; globalization, increased productivity and overcapacity, the obsolescence of middle-management and skilled jobs – lost to office automation and robotic manufacturing – unsustainable and maxed debt accumulation, over-regulation, under-regulation, and of course, insufficiently progressive taxation and insufficient taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations – or is it the lack of a universal flat tax and excessive taxes on everyone. It depends on who you ask. But for the five million households in California who do pay taxes, it is fair to wonder what level of compensation is equitable for public safety personnel, and why their compensation has increased by double-digits (after inflation) during a time when private sector incomes have gone down.

The Impact of Tax Exempt Disability Pensions

September 2, 2011

It is surprisingly difficult to gather data on just how many public safety employees claim disability in their retirements, but this should not prevent us from estimating what the benefits bestowed on disability claimants cost taxpayers.

A common program to compensate public safety workers for job-related disabilities is to grant them a tax exemption, whereby 50% of their retirement pension is exempt from state and federal taxes. While it is virtually impossible to collect data from pension fund administrators on exactly how many retired public safety workers have retired with this benefit, a 2004 investigative report by the Sacramento Bee found that among retired members of the California Highway Patrol, 66% of the rank and file officers, and 82% of the chiefs retired with service disabilities. Similarly, a 2006 investigative report by the San Jose Mercury found that two-thirds of San Jose Firefighters retired with service disabilities. Neither of these reports remain available online, although a Google search on the term “Chief’s Disease” (a term coined by the Sacramento Bee) will find dozens of secondary references to these studies; you can start here, and here.

The point of this analysis, other than to point out the shocking lack of comprehensive data on this issue, is to perform a what-if, based on assumptions that might be reasonably extrapolated from the available data.

The first section of the table below, “Impact per Worker,” shows what a person receiving a service disability tax exemption is really making annually, based on normalizing the take-home, after-tax earnings between the case with a 50% tax exemption vs. one with no tax exemption. Column one shows an average annual pension for a recently retired California public safety employee – probably low – of $75,000 per year. It then shows what their tax burden would be based on 50% of that income being exempt from taxes – leaving a taxable income of only $37,500, which invokes far lower withholding percentages. As can be seen, someone with a gross income of $75K per year who only pays taxes on $37.5K will have an after-tax income of $67,999 per year.

Still examining the “Impact per Worker” section of the table below, column two shows that in order to collect an after tax income of $67,999 per year, if one pays taxes on 100% of their income, would require an income of $90K per year, a 20% increase in gross income. This is the true value of the service disability 50% tax exemption. As retirement incomes increase, the disparity actually widens, because the tax brackets invoke higher withholding percentages. For example, a pension income of $100K – quite common among retired public safety workers – paying income taxes on only $50K, would deliver a take-home, after-tax income of $88,858. To earn this much while paying normal taxes without special exemptions would require an annual income of $128,363, a 28% increase. The reader is invited to verify these figures by referring to 2011 Federal Income Tax Brackets, and 2011 California Income Tax Brackets.

The second half of the above table, “Impact for California Taxpayers,” attempts to quantify what the prolific granting of service disability tax exemptions to retired public safety workers costs taxpayers. Based on updated 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau for California State Worker Payroll and California Local Government Worker Payroll, there were 222,898 full-time police, firefighters, and correctional officers working at the state and local level in California in March 2010. This amount does not include “full-time equivalents” who brought the total up to nearly 230,000 employees. On average, these full-time public safety workers earned $84,929 per year. Among firefighters, the average was $113,057 per year. Because public safety workers have life-expectancies that – according to CalPERS own actuarial data – meet or exceed national averages, and because they are eligible for retirement at age 50 (in some cases earlier), the calculations on the above table assume we are on track to have one retired public safety worker for every active public safety worker.

As can be seen, based on these assumptions – and the pension estimate of $75K per year is almost certainly quite a bit lower than the reality, since the average mid-career earnings of public safety workers is currently $85,000 per year, and pensions are calculated on end-of-career earnings – if 50% of public safety workers retire on service disability tax exemptions, the cost to California’s taxpayers is $1.7 billion per year.

Whether or not this is an accurate estimate, and available data suggests that this estimate is, if anything, on the low side, is almost beside the point. Where is this data? Why doesn’t CalPERS, and the other pension funds managing public safety employee retirement assets, release this data?

Nobody seriously questions that public safety workers deserve to make a premium for the work they do. The level of sophistication required to work in law enforcement and fire suppression today is far greater than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The value we place on life and personal security is also greater today than ever before. There is a price for this, and it is one taxpayers should pay without resentment. The question is how much of a premium is equitable, and how much of a premium is financially sustainable. A related question is how much of this premium paid to public safety workers, to the extent it is excessive, the result of powerful government worker unions who pool taxpayer’s money to control local elections with massive campaign contributions. How much is this pay premium elevated because public safety worker unions, and their PR firms, exploited their deserved hero status in inappropriate ways to manipulate the electorate to ignore fiscal reality?

When the question turns to pensions, however, the issue of whether or not a premium is appropriate for service in public safety may not be as justifiable. If public safety workers deserve a premium, it should be paid as part of their current compensation. This way they may share, along with all public employees, the same obligations to financially prepare for their retirement that face working private sector taxpayers. As for disability pensions, it strains credulity to think that over 80% of police chiefs and fire captains, and over 60% of other public safety workers are disabled in the course of their jobs. And even if they are, these disabilities can be remedied through far less expensive private disability insurance, not through the granting of service disability tax exemptions that increase the effective gross amount of their pensions by 20-30%.

Questioning whether or not we should offer pensions in excess of $75K per year to workers who retire in their early 50s, or then offer as many as half of these retirees with service disability tax exemptions, goes beyond questions of financial sustainability. It goes beyond questioning how much of a premium they deserve for the risks they take to protect the public. A deeper question is not how much we value the lives of those who protect us, but how much we value everyone’s life. Dozens of jobs are more dangerous than those in public safety. Logging, fishing, agriculture, and mining occupations claim thousands of lives every year, and maim thousands more. Few if any of these workers retire in their early 50s with pensions of $75K or more, and none of them receive service disability tax exemptions. Do we consume the products that these workers lose their lives and endure disabling injuries to provide for us? Can we live without those products? Are their lives any less significant than the lives of others who wear badges? For that matter, are the millions who toil in factories or in front of computers any less likely to wear out and become disabled through repetitive motions and eye strain? Are their injuries less debilitating? Is their life’s work undeserving of commensurate dignity?

Ultimately, we all share the fate of our mortality, the ultimate disability. We age, we wear out, we are progressively disabled, and then we die. Nobody escapes this verdict, whether our professions are public or private, intellectual or physical, noble or profane. This common denominator – tempered by considerations of what is financially realistic – should govern our common response to the challenges of disabilities, not privilege, nor political power, nor manipulative emotional appeals.

What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent?

July 25, 2011

In a previous post “Pension Contributions Aren’t Enough,” the point is made that for every percentage point that an investment fund lowers their projected rate of return, the required annual pension fund contribution as a percent of salary goes up by over 10%. The assumptions underlying that analysis were 30 years working, 30 years retired, a pension equivalent to 90% of final salary, with the salary doubling (in inflation adjusted dollars) between the first year of employment and the final year of employment. Using the same assumptions, but for a pension equivalent to 60% of final annual salary, for every percentage point that an investment fund lowers their projected rate of return, the required annual pension fund contribution as a percent of salary goes up by a bit less than 10%. The implications of these facts should be clear to anyone involved in the issue of public employee pension benefits.

This post is in response to an email received from someone who, after reading the previous post, asked what the impact might be on required annual contributions to pensions if the assumptions are changed so that the years retired are shortened. The implication was that a 30 year working, 30 year retired scenario is an unlikely average, since on average, employees who log 30 years of government service do not survive an additional 30 years in retirement. But when analyzing the variability of required pension fund contributions based on 20 year and 25 year retirements, while assuming 30 years of work, the results are still noteworthy. Here they are:

In the above table, the first set of four rows show various scenarios based on a pension equivalent to 90% of final salary, the second set of four rows show various scenarios based on a pension equivalent to 60% of final salary. One might suggest the first set of rows depicts public safety workers, representing approximately 15% of California’s 1.85 million state and local government workers, and the second set of rows depicts everyone else working for state and local government agencies in California.

For each pension example, the fund return is calculated at a best case of 4.75% per year, which is the official rate used by CalPERS currently, and is the rate used by most public employee pension funds across the U.S. That return is then dropped by 1.0% in each of the next three rows. It is important to note that these are “real” returns, after inflation, which is typically projected at 3.0% per year. In nominal terms, CalPERS official long-term projected rate of return is 7.75% per year. So in nominal (before adjusting for inflation) terms, the four returns evaluated on this table are 7.75%, 6.75%, 5.75%, and 4.75%. To keep this in perspective, the “risk-free,” nominal rate of return on the 10 year Treasury Bill is 3.0% per year, nearly two percent lower than our worst case scenario in this analysis.

As can be seen by reviewing the first column in the boxed set of data on the table, when someone works 30 years and is retired 30 years, and has a pension equivalent to 90% of their final salary, if you drop just one-percent from CalPERS official long-term projection, you have to increase the annual pension fund contribution by 10.1% of salary – from 30.3% per year to 40.4% per year. But if you want to be more realistic (notwithstanding pension spiking, staggering losses to the funds over the past 10 years, or retroactive pension benefit increases, which this analysis does not take into account, and which make the required contributions much higher), you may consider the next two columns in the boxed area on the table.

If someone works 30 years and retires for 25 years, with a pension equivalent to 90% of their final salary, if you drop just one-percent from CalPERS official long-term projection, you have to increase the annual pension fund contribution by 8.6% of salary, from 27.7% per year to 36.3% per year. If someone works 30 years and retires for 20 years, with a pension equivalent to 90% of their final salary, if you drop just one-percent from CalPERS official long-term projection, you have to increase the annual pension fund contribution by 7.1% of salary, from 24.4% per year to 31.5% per year. Clearly increasing the proportion of years working to years retired reduces the impact of lowered rate of return assumptions, but the impact of a mere 1.0% drop in the projected long-term rate of pension fund returns on the required contribution is still quite dramatic.

Anyone who wishes to explore this further is invited to review two example charts below this post, one that shows the derivation of the required pension fund contribution based on a 90% pension, a 4.75% real rate of return, and 30 years working, 25 years retired, and the other using the same assumptions except for the real rate of return, which is lowered to 3.75%.

The hyper-sensitivity of required pension fund contributions to a lower projected rate of return for the fund is something that terrifies actuaries who are under pressure to release sanguine assessments of pension fund viability. It is further evidence as to why pension fund managers continue to claim that 7.75% returns are achievable despite the fact that we live in an era when the cost of money in real terms is literally negative. In our debt saturated global economy, bubble assets and zero real interest rate are a last, desperate ploy to stave off deflation. As the major currencies of the world – all representing economies that carry debt up to their eyeballs – compete to out-devalue each other, the debt eating panacea of inflation shall remain elusive. Yet the masters of the universe on Wall Street, and in their public employee pension fund bridgeheads throughout America, claim they can still earn the returns they earned when the credit binge was in full bloom.

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Quantifying the Impact of Pension Spiking

July 25, 2011

While much has been made of the impact of pension “spiking,” it is helpful to quantify just exactly how much pension spiking will cost taxpayers, and how ill-prepared an otherwise adequately funded pension account is for this practice. In the two sets of examples below, the same assumptions and the same analytical model is used as in the previous post “What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent?“; 30 years working, 25 years retired, pay in real dollars doubling between the hire date and the retirement date, and various rates of return.

In this analysis, each block of data has three rows. The first row shows the amount by which the final pay is “spiked,” i.e., increased by a disproportionate amount through a large pay raise, cashing in of accumulated sick time, or other methods that increase pay more than it would ordinarily increase. The second row shows how much would have to be set aside as a percent of payroll each year and contributed into the employee’s pension fund, in order to ensure the fund would have sufficient assets to pay out the calculated retirement pension for 25 years. The third row puts this another way, by showing how much money would need to be in the employee’s pension fund at the time they retire. There are three sets of three rows, representing the results under three different return on investment scenarios; a 4.75% rate of return over the life of the fund (after adjusting downwards for 3.0% inflation), which is CalPERS official rate of return, along with most other public employee pension funds, then a 3.75% real rate of return, then a 2.75% real rate of return. One is encouraged to remember that a 2.75% “real” rate of return equates under these assumptions to a 5.75% actual, or nominal return. To keep this in perspective, the risk-free 10 year treasury bill earns a 3.0% annual rate of return.

In the example immediately below, this model is applied to calculate the impact of a 10%, 20% and 30% spiking of final year pay (columns 2, 3, and 4) for a public safety employee, retiring after 30 years with a pension equivalent to 90% of their final year of pay. The baseline case of zero spiking is provided in column one. This analysis is not to suggest that all public safety workers, who represent about 15% of California’s roughly 1.85 million state and local government workers engage in spiking, or, for that matter, that the other 85%, the “non-safety” government employees in California, engage in spiking. Pension spiking is a reality that is pervasive in some agencies and jurisdictions, and nonexistent in others. In some cities and counties in California it is having a dramatic impact on pension fund solvency and the rates of contribution necessary to compensate for it. The purpose of this analysis is not to identify where and when spiking is occurring, only to quantify how much it costs when it does occur. The worst case example of spiking used here of 30% is not unusual.

To understand the above table, compare the 2nd row in each three-row block of numbers, starting with the case that uses a 4.75% real rate of return for the pension fund. The impact of an employee collecting a pension equivalent to 90% of their final pay who successfully increases their final year of salary by 30%, in order to increase their pension by the same amount, is to require their employer to contribute not 27.7% of their salary into a pension fund every year for the entire 30 years they work, but 35.7%. That is, when an employee collecting a 90% pension manages to spike their final salary by 30%, it means an additional 8.0% of salary would have had to have been contributed to their pension fund every year for their entire 30 year career working. Referring to the 3rd row in each three-row block, one can see that the impact of a 30% final year spike in pay is to require the pension fund at the time of retirement to have nearly $1.7 million accumulated, vs. $1.3 million in the baseline case.

The next table provides this same information for non-safety government employees, in cases where after a 30 year career they collect a 60% pension. This would represent pretty much the absolute lowest pension a state or local government employee in California might expect after 30 years. Teachers, for example, after 30 years of service are eligible to apply a 2.5% factor to the number of years they worked, which equates to a pension equivalent to 75% of their final salary. In this example, again referring to the first three-row set of data, which represents our best case, since it utilizes CalPERS official 4.75% real rate of return on invested funds, without spiking, the employee would have to contribute 18.5% of their pay into their retirement plan for 30 years, and would have to accumulate $870K at the end of their career in order to fund a 25 year retirement. If they manage to spike their final year of pay by 30%, they would have had to contribute 23.8% of their salary into their retirement plan for 30 years, and they would have to amass $1.13 million in their retirement fund by the end of their career.

These examples indicate that the impact of spiking is dramatic. Whenever a government employee exploits loopholes in their pension formulas and rules in order to spike their final year’s pay, there is a huge cost to taxpayers. Referring to the charts again, if a retiree earning a 90% pension only spikes their final year of pay by 10%, their payroll contribution for the 30 years they worked would still need to have been increased by nearly 2.7%. If they spike their final pay by 20%, their payroll contribution for the 30 years they worked would need to have been increased by over 5.4%. In many cases, just these relatively small amounts of spiking, 10% and 20%, spell a required increase to the annual contribution to the pension fund that is greater than the entire amount they themselves contribute via payroll withholding. The taxpayer pays nearly everything.

A final disquieting observation can be had by referring to the two boxes in each example, one in the upper left corner of the data set, and one in the lower right corner. The boxed datapoints in the upper left indicate how much is typically set aside for pensions based on the official projected real rate of return, 4.75%, and zero spiking of final salary. In the case of the 90% pensioner, 27.7% of payroll must be set aside, and at retirement those accumulated set asides, plus interest, must equal $1.3 million. In the case of the 60% pensioner, 18.5% of payroll must be set aside, and at retirement those set asides, plus interest, must equal $871K. But what happens if both pension spiking occurs, and the pension fund is required – by the intervention of reality – to lower their projected real rate of return for their funds by 2.0%, down to a real rate of return of 2.75%, or a nominal rate of return of 5.75%? The compounding effect of these combined outcomes is truly frightening.

In the case of the 90% pensioner who spikes their final salary by 30% at the same time as the pension fund reduces their long-term earnings projection to 2.75%, instead of setting aside 27.7% of payroll each year, they would have had to set aside 61.4% of payroll each year. Instead of accumulating $1.3 million in their pension account by the year of their retirement, they would have had to accumulate $2.1 million.

In the case of the 60% pensioner who spikes their final salary by 30% at the same time as the pension fund reduces their long-term earnings projection to 2.75%, instead of setting aside 18.5% of payroll each year, they would have had to set aside 40.9% of payroll each year. Instead of accumulating $871K in their pension account by the year of their retirement, they would have had to accumulate $1.4 million.

This is not an extreme scenario. While pension spiking is not pervasive, it is common. And anyone who thinks the worst case investment returns contemplated here are unlikely – a nominal return of 5.75% – needs to consider how long public sector pension funds that manage over $3.0 trillion in assets can continue to rely on hedging and other high-risk Wall Street tricks to outperform the risk-free rate of the 10 year U.S. Treasury bill, which is only 3.0% per year. Pension spiking causes dramatic increases to the amount necessary to fund pensions all by itself. When viewed in combination with what may well be an inevitable reduction in the projected rate of return for pension funds, pension spiking can play a material role in making an extraordinarily challenging situation even worse.

How Rates of Return Affect Required Pension Contributions

April 27, 2011

In the post “How Rates of Return Affect Required Pension Assets,” the point is made that depending on the rate of return achievable by the pension fund, there are significant changes to what level of assets are required for that fund to remain solvent. This post takes a slightly different approach; looking at an individual pension participant, how do pension fund rates of return affect how much they will have to contribute into their pension each year?

To make this estimate, the same set of assumptions are used in this post as in the previous post; they are:

  • The participant works for 30 years and they are retired for 30 years.
  • The participant earns a pension equivalent to 66% of their final salary.
  • The participant’s salary, in real (inflation adjusted) dollars, doubles at an even rate between the time they begin working and when they retire.
  • The rate of return and the rate of inflation are held constant throughout the 60 year period under analysis.
  • The rate of inflation is assumed to be 3.0% per year (this is CalPERS official projection, and is consistent with the historical average for the last 90+ years).

Here’s what we get:

There are a lot of takeaways here, but the most important is this:  Even at a return of 7.5% per year, which is actually slightly below CalPERS official long-term projected annual return of 7.75% per year, using these assumptions there is a contribution requirement of 24% of salary per year. This is well above what most cities and state agencies contribute to their employee pension funds each year. But what if pension funds acknowledge they will NOT be earning 7.75% per year any more? What if their earnings merely keep up with inflation?

As shown on the chart, for every 1.0% the real rate of return drops, the annual pension fund contribution as a percent of salary will go up by 10% or more, i.e., if the fund’s real rate of return drops from 3.5% to 2.5%, the amount required to be contributed into the fund as a percent of salary will go from 33% to 43%.

CalPERS spokespersons love to tout the “computer models” and “investment experts” who are confident they can continue to extract a long-term 7.75% return per year. But notwithstanding the fact that these are a lot of the same experts who had computer models that predicted the Dow Jones Average would reach 35,000 by 2005, or that there “might” be a housing bubble,  their confidence ignores several factors:

– The long-term inflation adjusted performance of publicly traded equities in the United States is not quite 3.0% per year, even taking into account dividend reinvestment. The Dow Jones average in 1930 was 286 (ref. Yahoo Finance), and the CPI was 17.1 (ref. Bureau of Labor Statistics). The Dow Jones average at the end of 2010 was 10,856, but the CPI had risen to 216.7. This means the inflation adjusted long-term performance of the Dow Jones average over the past 80 years was a paltry 1.4%. Compare this to CalPERS official long-term, inflation adjusted projection of 4.75% per year.

– Don’t rely on inflation to bail out pensions. The 2.0% annual cap on COLAs automatically lifts when pensioners have lost 20% of their purchasing power; the liability will then remain proportionally intact. This means it remains the fund’s real rate of return, after inflation, that has to be maintained.

– The potential of the U.S. economy to grow over the past 60 years, fueling these higher-than-sustainable historical returns for CalPERS and other pension funds was for two reasons that will not apply today: (1) the U.S. economy 60 years ago was the world’s only intact post-WWII economy, and grew at an extraordinary rate as we exported manufactured goods to the recovering economies elsewhere in the world. Today our manufacturers face formidable competition from developed and emerging economies all over the planet, (2) as the U.S. began to encounter global competition over the more recent decades, the U.S. embarked on a debt binge that is coming to an end.

– In past decades pension funds represented a smaller slice of the economy, meaning that they could beat the market without causing distortions. Today pension funds are the single biggest source of new investment in the U.S. They can no longer expect to beat the market. They are too big.

– A related challenge is the fact that pension funds are now servicing a growing number of retirees. The ratio of pensioners to active workers who participate in pension funds is approaching 1-to-1, meaning that fund withdrawals to make pension payments is reducing demand for equities because the pension funds are doing more selling than ever before. This, too, puts downward pressure on equities.

– The recent rise in equity values has to be viewed in the context of the above factors, which means what goes up may be coming down, but also in the context of the strength of the dollar. As the dollar devalues, the real value of U.S. equities shrinks apace. But if the underlying viability of these companies has not changed, their dollar denominated equity value has to adjust upwards in order for their value to stay neutral when compared to foreign currencies. And if the dollar strengthens (since all nations are competing to devalue their currencies these days), the value of U.S. equities – all else being equal – will fall again. And, to complete the thought, if the dollar doesn’t eventually rebound against foreign currencies, domestic inflation will offset any gains in equity values driven by dollar devaluation.

A serious discussion about what rate of return gigantic pension funds can really earn in America in this era, as opposed to previous eras, has not yet taken place. The performances of massive government worker pension funds hold dire implications for taxpayers who are on the hook to cover the difference whenever expectations do not meet reality. For these reasons, it would behoove CalPERS and other pension funds to trot their economists into the limelight to defend their assumptions, instead of hiding behind soundbites uttered by public relations specialists with well-modulated voices.

How Rates of Return Affect Required Pension Assets

April 15, 2011

While pension finance is a relatively obscure discipline that requires of its practitioners expertise both in investments and actuarial calculations, it is a mistake to think the fundamentals are beyond the average policymaker or journalist. One policy question of extreme importance to discussions about the future of public worker pensions is how much pension funds can legitimately expect to earn over the long term. The reason this question is critical is because the more the pension fund earns, the lower the annual contribution will have to be. Just how much lower each percentage point gain offers is startling.

In the first table (below), conservative assumptions are offered towards estimating how much the pension funds of California’s state and local workers must earn each year. The number of active state and local government workers is fairly well documented at 1.85 million (including K-12 and higher education). The $68,000 per year annual salary is actually low, since that is the average salary, and pension fund calculations are based on the higher final salary. This means the $68,000 figure is accurate for estimating the money flowing into the pension system, but will understate the amount of money flowing out of the pension system to retirees. Similarly, the 33% average pension fund contribution is on the high side – typically only public safety employees, who are only about 15% of the state and local government workforce, receive employer contributions equivalent to over 30% of their salary into the pension funds. But based on these numbers, each year California’s state and local workers pour $41.5 billion into the state and local government worker pension funds.

The second half of the table (above) estimates how much money comes out of the state and local government pension funds each year. This projection shows a ratio of retirees to active workers of 1-to-1, based on the assumption that – using full-career-equivalent workers and retirees – the average worker is employed for 30 years, and is then retired for 30 years. This is an important concept to linger on, because the concept of “full-career-equivalent” is crucial to understanding why CalPERS spokepeople are accurately able to claim the “average” pension is only $25,000. In reality, that is only true when considering all employees who ever passed through the CalPERS system – even if they only worked for five years and barely vested a pension.

This concept also applies when calculating the “average pension as percent of salary,” where based on existing pension formulas, 67% is on the low side when dealing with full-career-equivalent numbers. Typical government pensions in California accrue between 2.0% and 3.0% per year – teachers, who are 40% of the public workforce, who work 30 years receive 2.5% per year, public safety workers, who are 15% of the workforce, receive 3.0% per year. It is common for public utility workers to receive 2.7% per year. So estimating an average pension of $45K per year, based on 67% of $68K, is almost certainly on the low side. This means California is projected to pay out $83 billion per year to their retired state and local workers. In reality, current formulas and data suggest they will pay out a lot more than that.

The point of the first chart is that the money going into the government worker pension funds in California is estimated to be $41.5 billion per year, and the amount of money being paid out of these pension funds to retired state and local government workers is projected to be $83.8 billion per year. This means $42.3 billion per year will have to be earned on the market through investment returns.

The second chart (below) shows what the necessary asset balance is based on various rates of return. The calculation is extremely straightforward – take the amount that has to be earned each year, and divide that amount by the rate of return the fund is going to deliver:

As can be seen, at a rate of return of 7.75%, which is CalPERS (and most other government worker pension funds) official long-term projected rate of return, “only” $545 billion in assets are necessary for these funds to be “fully funded.” But if this rate of return is dropped by a few percentage points, the necessary assets mushroom. What if pension funds were required to stop making risky investments and instead had to buy treasury bills? Don’t be surprised if that is necessary someday – for example when nobody else will buy T-bills… What an elegant solution to the challenges posed by quantitative easing. But California’s pension funds would go from being fully funded at $545 billion to being only 39% funded – and the necessary asset balance would increase by $864 billion to $1.4 trillion.

The reason we don’t hear more about the serious discussions over what the real long-term rate of return should be for these massive funds is because they are occurring behind closed doors, and the reason for that should be clear by studying the above table. How on earth would Californian taxpayers cough up $864 billion? How and when will the actuaries and investment experts deliver this shock to the system?

Because current pension benefits have a cost-of-living-adjustment cap of 2% that is lifted as soon as the purchasing power of the pension benefit erodes to between 75% and 80% of the original award, don’t expect inflation to bail out the government worker pension system. Even more alarming than the nominal projection of 7.75% used by CalPERS is their real rate of return – they assume 3.0% inflation and expect an inflation-adjusted return of 4.75%. That may have been possible in the days when asset bubbles were inflating which collateralized what is now $50 trillion in debt (commercial, household and government combined) in the U.S., but those days are done.

Even if pension funds – that in aggregate in the U.S. currently manage about $3.0 trillion in assets – could earn a 4.75% (long-term, after inflation) return, they would do so by beating the market. This means other market participants, i.e., individual small investors with their 401Ks, would lose. This predatory relationship between large public sector pension funds and the small investors is ignored by apologists for public sector pension funds, who both claim “Wall Street” is to blame for the 2007 market crash, yet rely on Wall Street to deliver for them, decade after decade, higher than market rates of return.

Finally, if taxpayers are to fund market investments for the purposes of augmenting the retirement assets available to workers in the United States, it should be for ALL workers, not just government workers. As it is, however, the existence of gigantic, aggressively managed funds whose entire risk is borne by taxpayers creates a dangerous distortion in the investment market. It is ridiculous that in an era of unavoidable debt reduction, when the federal composite borrowing rate is less than 1% per year, taxpayer supported Wall Street entities – i.e., government worker pension funds – are claiming they can earn 7.75% per year. The longer they cling to this fiction, elevating their portfolio risk to achieve the unachievable, the more volatile the entire market will become.

Policymakers have to face the fact that when these projected rates of return come down, and they will, government worker pensions as they are currently formulated will disappear. Hiding behind the “complexity” of this issue, and instead echoing the sanguine talking points of CalPERS spokespersons who have not sat in the closed door meetings, is simply irresponsible.

California Voter Attitudes Towards Reforming Special Interests

March 11, 2011

The California Policy Center has completed another survey of California voters to measure attitudes towards special interest politics, with an emphasis on the influence of big corporations and public employee unions. Here are the principal findings and conclusions. Interviews with 605 randomly selected individuals were conducted between February 27th and March 3rd, 2011. The margin of error associated with the results is +/- 4.0%.

General voter attitudes towards Sacramento and special interests:

  • 60% of voters believe “things in California have gotten off on the wrong track,” 21% believe “things in California are going in the right direction,” and 20% aren’t sure.
  • Asked to note the “top three” issues in California of most concern, the following top issues were selected: state government spending 40%, unemployment 38%, education 36%, health care 18%, state taxes 16%, crime 8%, the environment 5%.
  • 78% of voters believe “major changes” are needed in the way state government is run.

The survey found voter attitudes strongly in favor of reforming all special interests, evidenced by 81% of respondents agreeing with the following: “Corporations and unions are spending millions of dollars to get their way in Sacramento; we need to cut off campaign contributions so politicians will pay attention to the voters instead of catering to special interests.”

Surprisingly, California voters appeared quite open-minded about whether or not Republicans could fix the problem of special interests, shown by only 43% agreeing with, and 53% disagreeing with the following statement: “Corporations and Republicans can’t be trusted to write a proposal that would limit their own influence; this proposal is really about hurting the Democratic party by crippling labor unions who represent average working families.”

It is also interesting that even in California, a significant number of voters, 40%, believe that collective bargaining should be banned in the public sector. Only 50% of California voters currently support collective bargaining for government workers.

Voter attitudes towards specific special interest reform options:

(1) A proposition to prohibit state and local governments from collecting union dues used for political purposes through paycheck withholding?

Favor 46%
Oppose 51%
Undecided 3%

(2) A proposition to ban all corporate and labor union contributions to candidates and political parties, and prohibit government employers from deducting from employees’ paychecks any amount used for political purposes?

Favor 65%
Oppose 31%
Undecided 4%

(3) A proposition to make all political contributions by government employees voluntary, and prohibit government employers from deducting from employees’ paycheck any amount used for political purposes?

Favor 75%
Oppose 23%
Undecided 2%

(4) A proposition to prohibit collective bargaining by labor unions on behalf of state and local public employees?

Favor 40%
Oppose 50%
Undecided 10%

To view the entire survey results, click here. To read about the earlier surveys, click here and here.

What Percent of California's State and Local Budgets Are Employee Compensation?

February 11, 2011

Earlier this week the California Policy Center posted an analysis that estimated about two-thirds of California’s state budget covers state employee compensation expenses. This was in response to a widely quoted estimate that the number was only about 12%. Due to the huge disparity in these claims, and the implications having the correct number may have on the debate over public employee compensation, we decided to dig a little deeper.

For expert information, we talked with two individuals at the California Office of Legislative Analyst, Jason Sisney, the Director of State Finance, and Nick Schroeder, Public Employment and Fiscal Oversight. Both of them confirmed that state government employees compensation consumes about 12% of the state general fund budget. But the devil is in the details.

Probably the best source for information on state expenditures in California is available at “California Budget Information,” produced by the state Dept. of Finance. Using this data, and corroborating this data with other sources, this post will produce another, more in-depth estimate of what percentage of the state budget is consumed by personnel expense, as well as what percentage of state and local budgets combined are consumed by personnel expenses. Both Sisney and Schroeder, who ought to know, stated that arriving at a meaningful figure is “nearly impossible,” but they agreed with the rough percentages that will be arrived at in this analysis.

Beginning with how much state employees make in average salary; sources of information include the following:

State Finance Department: Personnel Years and Salary Cost Estimates, 2009-2010, which shows 345,777 full-time state employees in that year, collectively paid $23,104,763,000 in that year, which averages $66,820 each. This does not include benefits.

U.S. Census Bureau: California State Government Employment Data, March 2008, which shows 338,725 full-time employees who were collectively paid in that month $2,002,723,495, which averages $70,950 per year each, not including benefits. This page includes important additional information, the “full-time equivalent” number of part-time employees, 48,212, collectively making an additional $2,798,685,61, which averages $58,050 each. Using this data, the composite average of full-time plus full-time equivalent employees working directly for the state of California is $68,102 per year for 393,989 employees, which costs $26.8 billion per year. What about benefits?

To reprise the data presented in our last post, the overhead rate we used came from a 2010 study entitled “The Truth about Public Employees in California: They are Neither Overpaid nor Overcompensated,” from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. In this study, the authors found “Public employers underwrite 35.7% of employee compensation in benefits.” If 35.7% of compensation is in the form of benefits, this means 64.3% of compensation is in the form of wages. To develop an overhead rate, you would determine what percentage 35.7 is of 64.3, i.e., the value of state employee benefits is equal to 55.5% of their compensation. This means total state worker compensation is $26.8 billion plus 55.5% of that number ($14.9 billion), which equals $41.7 billion.

What percentage of the total state budget does this represent? Here the numbers become even more subjective, because the state budget includes vast categories of “pass throughs” which are monies not used by the state, but passed on to local governments and agencies. A breakdown of the major categories of state revenues can be found at the Dept. of Finance’s “Chart B, Historical Data, Budget Expenditures,” where for the 2009-2010 year they report total revenue of $206.1 billion, breaking down into $87.2 billion into the General Fund, $23.5 billion into “Special Funds,” $6.3 in Bond Funds, and 89.1 of Federal Funds.

When speaking with Jason Sisney at the California Dept. of Finance, he claimed that virtually 100% of the Bond Funds and Federal Funds were pass-throughs to local governments and agencies, and that about 70% of the General Fund are passed through to local governments and agencies. This leaves between 30% of the General Fund and 100% of the Special Funds to pay for state employees, i.e., $49.7 billion. Using these numbers, state employee compensation consumes 84% of the state revenues that are retained by the state and not passed through to local governments.

To remain fair, the amount that employee overhead truly costs the state is debatable. One may argue it is overstated here, since it is applied to full-time equivalent figures for part-time employees. But typically part-time state employees accrue benefits at the rate they work; if they work 50% of the time, for example, their pension benefits accrue at half the rate they might accrue if they were working full time. One may also argue the Berkeley study was estimating an overhead rate of 37.5%, not that benefits consume 37.5% of compensation – which is what they said. But even if that is the case, realistic reductions to the estimated long-term returns on pension funds will pump that overhead rate right back up from 37.5% to 55.5%.

While this analysis attempts to estimate the percent of state spending consumed by employee compensation, the discussion would not be complete without at least considering what costs the state imposes on taxpayers by virtue of better-than-market benefits that are so-called soft costs. For example, if the state did away with the “9/80″ program, a benefit that is, after all, unheard of by the ordinary private sector worker, how many fewer bureaucrats (40% of the state workforce) could they hire? The 9/80 program essentially provides state bureaucrats with an extra 26 days off per year, which means if all of them got this benefit and it were eliminated, the state could eliminate 10% of their bureaucrats, or 4% of the entire state workforce. This is just one example of hidden costs of staggering magnitude.

Since such a high percentage of state revenues are passed directly through to the local governments and agencies in California, what percentage of their spending is to compensate local government employees? This is a very difficult question to answer, since there are over 400 incorporated cities, 58 counties, and countless administrative districts for, for example, K-12 schools and public utilities. But let’s try:

The average local government worker, using the Census Bureau as the source; Public Employment Data 2008, Local Governments, indicates 1,451,619 (full time equivalent) local government workers made on average $64,285 per year, which totals $93.3 billion. Add 55.5% benefits overhead to that amount and you have a total of $145.1 billion in local government employee compensation per year in California. How much did local governments spend?

For this data it is again necessary to rely on census data, referencing compilations put together by analyst Chris Cantrill on the website His chart (click the tab “Local”), Local Government Spending California, 2009 estimate, shows local government spending totaling $270 billion. This suggests that spending for employees in local governments in California, on average, consumes about 54% of the total local government budgets.

With respect to local government, however, a collective figure can be quite misleading. At the county level where social services agencies issue direct payments to needy citizens, or in the case of public utilities and construction projects where there is substantial allocations for capital investments, the percentage of funds allocated to employee compensation may be relatively minute. In smaller incorporated cities, on the other hand, the percentage of funds used for employee compensation may be 90% or more.

Readers are invited to review these calculations and the underlying assumptions. But given California’s state and local governments combined spend nearly $200 billion per year to compensate state and local workers, a discussion of whether or not their compensation might be reduced to market rates is not only relevant from the standpoint of fairness, but may also be a meaningful option towards reducing budget deficits.

State Politics and Right to Work Laws

January 24, 2011

While much analysis has been forthcoming on the impact of the November 2010 election on the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, it is harder to get compiled information on how that election affected political control of 50 states. An excellent source for this much larger body of data comes from the American Legislative Exchange Council, who just released the report Political Profiles of State Legislatures 2011, which, when compared to their report from last year, Political Profiles of State Legislatures 2010, provides dramatic evidence of the changes wrought by the November election.

A brief summary of what November 2010 did to the political landscape of the 50 state legislatures is this: Before the election the Republicans controlled both houses of 16 state legislatures (counting Nebraska, which only has a Senate), the Democrats controlled both houses of 27 state legislatures, and 7 states had one party controlling each house. After the election the Republicans controlled both houses of 26 legislatures, the Democrats controlled both houses of 15 state legislatures, and 9 states had one party controlling each house. If you simply total up the number of state legislators affiliated with the major parties, in state senates the totals changed from 1,025-897 in favor of Democrats before the election to 1,023-889 in favor of Republicans afterward, and in state houses the totals changed from 3,023-2,354 in favor of Democrats before the election to 2,916-2,466 in favor of Republicans afterward

There was an equally dramatic shift in Governor’s races, changing from 26-24 in favor of Democrats before the November election, to 29-20 in favor of Republicans afterward (Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee is an independent).

The three tables below put the shift in America’s political landscape into a more detailed perspective, dividing the states into three groups; Republican controlled states, Democratic controlled states, and so-called “battleground” states. The tables and sub-tables progress, somewhat subjectively, in a progression from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic.

In the above table it can be seen that in ten states, with a total population of 40 million, there are not only Republican governors and Republican control of both houses, but in both legislative houses the Republicans hold a 2/3rds majority (Nebraska’s unicameral senate has 2/3rds of the legislators self-identifying as Republicans). In another eleven states, with a total population of 98 million, there are Republican governors and Republicans control both houses, with three state senates and one state assembly having 2/3rds Republican majorities. It is interesting to note that all of the ten most solidly Republican states are right-to-work states, and five of the eleven next most solidly Republican states are right-to-work states. It is also interesting to note that at least three of these states, Texas, Florida and Arizona, with combined populations totaling over 50 million, have substantial percentages of ethnic minorities. Probably the most significant factor on this table is the presence of the big industrial states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, totalling 34 million people, which have moved out of the battleground category – if not the solidly Democratic category – and come under the decisive control of Republican politicians.

The next table displays battleground states, where neither political party exercises clear dominance. These states are separated into two groups, the first with Republican governors, and the second with Democratic governors.

In the first group of eight states, totaling 33 million in population, four of the Republican governors have a Republican assembly and, with the exception of Alaska whose senate is split equally, a Democratic state senate. In the other four, the Republican governors confront a state legislature where both houses are Democratic. Five of these states are right-to-work states. The second group of eight states, totaling 52 million in population, have Democratic governors – with five of those governors confronting state legislatures where both houses are Republican. Only one of these states is a right-to-work state. Probably the most interesting battle ahead is New York, where a Republican senate faces off against an overwhelmingly Democratic assembly, with a Democratic governor whose positions on some issues are becoming, if not nonpartisan, emblematic of a schism developing between Democrats who are controlled by public sector unions who simply want to raise taxes, and those who are realistically trying to confront fiscal realities – and save their party – through reinventing social programs and reducing public employee compensation packages.

The next table shows those states remaining solidly under Democratic party control. Leading the list are the colossal states of California and Illinois, with a combined population of over 50 million people, and a colossal set of financial challenges.

If one compares the total population of states that have Democratic governors and 2/3rd majorities in both state houses, 15 million, with the total population of states that have Republican governors and 2/3rd majorities in both state houses, 40 million – and the total population of states that have Democratic governors and simple majorities in both state houses, 70 million, with the total population of states that have Republican governors and simple majorities in both state houses, nearly 100 million – the true size of the Republican victory last November can be readily apprehended – as well as what this portends for 2012.

Another interesting correlation – because it is nearly absolute, is the presence or absence of right-to-work laws in states that are either solidly Republican, 10 for 10, or solidly Democratic, 0 for 4. As one picks their way through the states in between these extremes the correlation continues to apply – the more Republican a state is, the more likely it is to be one of the 22 states who have right-to-work laws. A good source of information on right-to-work can be found on the Labor Union Report website in an article entitled “Advancing the Right to Work.” And if one wonders whether or not the presence of right-to-work laws is the cause or the effect of Republican political control in various states, it is helpful to consider precisely what these laws mean. Here is the definition of right-to-work, in summary:

A “Right-to-Work” state forbids workers from being fired for non-payment of union dues or fees.

A “Non-Right-to-Work” (or forced unionism) state, allows unions to negotiate contracts with companies that require union dues and/or fees to be paid. If a worker refuses to pay union dues or fees (often referred to as agency fees), or falls behind, the union can demand that the worker be fired from the company. The company, by contract, must comply and fire the worker.

Looking at these definitions in the light of day, it is difficult to understand what possible justification there is for forcing someone to join a union if they don’t want to. Compulsory unionism, especially in the public sector, provides unions with the ability to pretty much force their membership to pay union dues. In turn, union dues are used, especially in the public sector, to elect politicians who will create and expand government programs in order to increase the number of unionized government workers, as well as increase pay and benefits to government workers. In most states where Democrats still wield formidable control – New York, Illinois, and California – the source of their power is the absence of right-to-work laws combined with the power of public sector unions.

Ultimately, the solution to the financial crises facing state and local governments lies in how politicians and voters respond to the power of public sector unions. In this regard, the political landscape which has suddenly turned blue states into red states in unprecedented numbers could be short-lived. Because the Democrats themselves have realized their party is controlled by unions, especially public sector unions. They have realized that because they are paying unionized government workers total compensation packages that dwarf what ordinary private sector taxpayers can ever hope to make, there is no longer any money left to continue worthy social programs or infrastructure projects. How Democrats resolve this dilemma, that they have created a unionized government monster that is consuming the productive resources of this country for its own gain, instead of the public interest, yet this monster is the source of nearly all the money they have available for their political campaigns, is the key to what happens in American politics in the elections of 2012.

Calculating Public Employee Total Compensation

December 19, 2010

A study released late last year, sponsored by U.C. Berkeley’s “Institute for Research on Labor and Employment” entitled “The Truth about Public Employees in California: They are Neither Overpaid nor Overcompensated,” contains its conclusion in its title, but whether or not this study is presenting the “truth” or not is worthy of further discussion.

According to this study, “the wages received by California public employees are about 7% lower, on average, than wages received by comparable private sector workers; however, public employees do receive more generous benefits. An apples to apples comparison, or one that controls for education, experience, and other factors that may influence pay, reveals no significant difference in the level of employee compensation costs…”

While the study goes on to explain the variables they evaluate in order to arrive at an “apples to apples” comparison, it never actually estimates the actual amount of wage disparity between the average compensation packages for California’s public employees compared to California’s private sector employees, so here goes:

Using California’s Employment Development Department’s 2010 report “Labor Market Trends,” (ref. figure 1) it is evident there are 2.4 million Federal, State and Local employees in California, 12.2 million full-time private sector employees who work for an employer, and another 1.4 million “self-employed” private sector workers. Worker compensation as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics don’t include estimates for California’s 1.4 million self-employed workers, nor does the U.C. Berkeley study. If these estimates were included, they would almost certainly skew average private sector compensation downwards, since according to California’s Employment Development Dept., self-employment does not include anyone working for a Corporation or LLC, even their own, meaning that more highly-compensated professionals fall within the BLS statistics for California’s 12.2 million private sector employees, whereas the remaining self-employed include part-time workers, independent contractors; in aggregate, a marginally compensated multitude who have to cover 100% of their benefits  – a 2x payment for social security, and zero paid time off, or free insurance of any kind, or automatic pay for sick time and retirement.

Returning to the 14.6 million people in California who either work for the government or are employed by private sector firms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report “May 2009 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates California,” their average annual compensation (not including employer funded benefits) in 2009 was $49,550. In order to extract from that average the compensation for the 2.4 million government workers in California, one may refer to Census Bureau data for 2009 as follows – for 394,000 state workers ref. State Government Employment Data, and for 1,451,619 local government workers ref. Local Government Employment Data. If you combine and average the compensation data for these two groups, you will arrive at an annual average pay – before any employer funded benefits – of $65,000 per year.

Making just one assumption, that California’s 500,000 federal workers not included in these statistics are earning the same average salary as the state and local workers, it is possible to subtract the figures for government workers from the pool of 14.6 million workers, who, according to the BLS earn an average of $49,500 per year, in order to calculate an average private sector (not including self-employed) compensation of $46,528 per year. This means that the Berkeley study has “normalized” for education, experience, and “other factors” to turn a 40% disparity between public and private sector compensation into a 7% disparity.

Before accepting the conclusion of this study, there are several assumptions it makes, both factual and subjective, that should be questioned; starting with this: “The average age of a typical worker in state and local government is 44 compared to 40 in the private sector.” The benefit of coming up with a “fact” like this, of course, is because by combining this fact with the assumption that compensation increases with seniority, the researchers are able to normalize downwards the average compensation of public employees significantly. For example, if one assumes an average career of 30 years, and that a worker’s inflation-adjusted salary will double between when their career begins and when they retire, than one might reasonably conclude a “normalized” compensation average for the public sector worker must be adjusted downwards by 13.3% in order to represent an “apples-to-apples” comparison with the younger private sector workers. Here again, it is serendipitous for the Berkeley study to exclude self-employed individuals, since according to California’s EDD, for workers over forty years of age, fully 50% of the civilian workforce is self-employed (ref. EDD’s California’s Self-Employed Workforce,” figure 6).

Another normalizing factor used by the researchers is gender, wherein they claim 55% of the state and local government workers are women, compared with 40% of the private sector. This is partially skewed, again, by the fact that 60% of self-employed people are men, but even adjusting for that, this fact, if accurate, represents another huge opportunity for the researchers to “normalize” compensation statistics in favor of reducing the disparity between private and public sector pay. Without having access to the work-papers used by the researchers, one can only speculate, but here’s the logic that could have been used: If women make 30% less than what men make for comparable work requiring comparable credentials, and if women represent 55% of the government workforce compared to 40% of the private sector workforce, this means an “apples-to-apples” comparison would require adjusting the public sector compensation upwards by  17% (55% x 30%) vs. an upwards adjustment of only 12% (40% x 30%) for the private sector workforce. Voila, another 5% of pay disparity is vaporized. The problem here is whether or not the “30%” pay differential rests on valid assumptions. When one normalizes for technical degrees vs. non-technical degrees, and the actual supply and demand parameters for jobs that might be deemed “comparable,” as well as for the significant percentage of women who opt out of full-time work in favor of being moms, much of this gender disparity may disappear. Whether or not there remains a gender bias in employee compensation is certainly open to debate, but the researchers should be transparent regarding how significant this factor was in their calculations.

The other major normalizing factor employed by the researchers is education, because the researchers have determined that 35% of the private sector workforce have earned at least a bachelors degree, compared with 55% of the public sector workforce. The researchers also claim the “return to education,” wherein people who have higher educational attainment should earn more, is skewed; that is, they claim private industry rewards education more than the public sector. What the study ignores here, however, is the fact that educational attainment yields qualitative dividends – what degrees are being compared? Is a sociology degree from Sonoma State the equivalent of a computer science degree from Stanford? Is it appropriate to pay more to employees with advanced degrees even if the job they do doesn’t require that level of education? The study doesn’t address this.

In any event, by excluding 1.4 million self-employed and part-time workers, and “normalizing” for seniority, gender and education, the Berkeley study has concluded that an average public sector salary in California is not 40% more than an average private sector salary – and without any normalizing adjustments, 40% higher wages for public sector vs. private sector workers appears to be a conservative estimate – but instead, that public sector wages are 7% less than private sector wages.

When turning to comparing benefits for public employees vs. private sector workers, it is important to understand that salary is the base on which the most significant benefits are calculated. In particular, the largest benefit category in the public sector is retirement pensions, which are calculated based on final salary earned. This means that even if public employee pension benefits were calculated in the same parsimonious manner as social security, they would apply to an average compensation base that is 40% larger for public employees. Moreover, public sector pensions are linear, meaning the benefit increases exactly proportionally to the amount of base salary without limit, whereas social security benefits increase at progressively lower rates, meaning that the more one makes, the lower percentage of their final salary will actually be realized in a social security benefit. These sound like nuances, but have enormous financial consequences.

Before independently estimating the disparity between public employee and private sector employee benefits, here is the Berkeley study’s specific conclusion: “public employers contribute on average 35.7% of employee compensation expenses to benefits, whereas private employers devote 30% of compensation to benefits.

By far the biggest single cost for employee benefits in both the public and private sector is the cost of retirement security. The calculation in the private sector is relatively straightforward – the employer withholds 6.2% for social security and 1.45% for medicare from employee paychecks, and contributes an equivalent amount themselves as a benefit – 7.65%. Some private sector employers will match a 401K contribution up to 6.0%, but the percentage of private sector employers who do this, combined with the number of private sector employees who take full advantage of this, is probably under 25%, which means the average overall retirement benefit paid by private sector employers is probably 10% (or less) of total wages.

For the public sector in California, the cost of retirement security borne by the employer is something else entirely. The typical formula for non-safety employees (about 85% of the public sector workforce) is to multiply the number of years they work by 2.0%, and apply the resulting percentage to their earnings in their final year of active employment. For example, if a non-safety employee works for 30 years, then 60% of their final salary will be the amount of their retirement pension. For safety employees, the typical formula is the same, but based on a 3.0% per year accrual. In the public sector, unlike with social security, the money contributed each year to fund the future retirement benefit is invested by a pension fund, which means the value of this benefit – and the funding required each year to ensure the pension fund remains solvent – must be calculated based on the expected investment returns of the pension fund. This is a matter of great controversy.

In the California Policy Center study “What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent?,” a best-case and realistic-case set of scenarios are offered:

(1) At a real rate of return of 4.75% per year, a worker would need to set aside an additional 20% of their salary each year for 30 years, in order to enjoy a pension benefit during a 30 year retirement equivalent to 60% of their paycheck.

(2) At a real rate of return of 4.75% per year, a worker would need to set aside an additional 30% of their salary each year for 30 years, in order to enjoy a pension benefit during a 30 year retirement equivalent to 90% of their paycheck.

(3) At a real rate of return of 2.75% per year, a worker would need to set aside an additional 36% of their salary each year for 30 years, in order to enjoy a pension benefit during a 30 year retirement equivalent to 60% of their paycheck.

(4) At a real rate of return of 2.75% per year, a worker would need to set aside an additional 54% of their salary each year for 30 years, in order to enjoy a pension benefit during a 30 year retirement equivalent to 90% of their paycheck.

For this independent estimate of the value of public sector employee pension benefits, using an assumption that 15% of public employees receive the enhanced “safety” pension, and assuming that the real rate of pension fund returns going forward will be 3.0% per year (still quite optimistic), it is necessary to contribute an amount equivalent to 38% of the average public employee’s pay in order to keep their pension solvent. Since, on average, public employees contribute about 5% of this amount in the form of withholding, an additional 33% has to be contributed by the employer. Many public employees receive supplemental retirement health insurance, for which few of them contribute anything at all in the form of withholding. It is certainly accurate to value this additional benefit as at least twice the amount of medicare, which adds another 3.0% per year.

Adding this all up, using conservative assumptions, the employer contribution to retirement security in the private sector is at most 10% of average salary, whereas in the public sector the employer contribution is at least 36% of average salary.

When assessing the value of current benefits granted public employees, most reviews of public sector benefit schedules suggest the standard package is a comprehensive set of benefits – for example, if one refers to the State of California’s Dept. of Personnel Administration, some of the current benefits include health insurance, dental benefits, a vision program, long-term care insurance, and long-term disability insurance. While these benefits are partially funded through employee withholding, the amounts withheld almost never exceed 50% of the premium, even for dependent coverage. To suggest that current benefits for public employees are, on average, less generous than the average current benefit for private sector employees strains credulity. What about the millions of part-time workers and self-employed people, who have to pay 100% of whatever health insurance they can afford – at premium rates that aren’t discounted and guaranteed by the insurance companies the way they are for the huge state employee bargaining units? What about all the small companies out there, employing at least 50% of full-time private sector workers, who can barely afford to offer basic health insurance, much less dental, vision, long-term care and long-term disability? It would be conservative indeed to simply assume the cost of current health insurance and other current benefits paid for by the employer is the same for both public and private sector workers, at approximately 5.0% of payroll.

The other significant factor to assess when estimating the value of public sector benefits is the amount of paid time off enjoyed by public sector employees vs. private sector employees. On this matter the Berkeley study makes a claim that they simply must substantiate; they state: “public employees receive considerably less supplemental pay and vacation time.

Perhaps to rebut this preposterous claim one must revert to anecdotes, but here at least are some quantitative considerations: there are 723,000 teachers in California who work for the government either in primary and secondary school or in higher education. Every one of these instructors and administrators works about 180 days per year, which when one considers there are 260 weekdays in a year (52 weeks x five days per week), indicates that teachers in California get 16 weeks of paid days off each year. What about college professors who only teach one class per week, yet enjoy total compensation packages worth $138K per year (ref. The Real Reason for College Tuition Increases). If you review compensation studies for safety employees in the city of Costa Mesa (ref. The Price of Public Safety), or firefighters in Sacramento (ref. California Firefighter Compensation), you can see, for example, that before overtime, full-time service for a veteran firefighter in Sacramento requires them to work, on average, two 24 hour shifts per week. Does the Berkeley study normalize for any of this? Compare vacation time in any public entity in California against private sector norms – the average vacation days awarded in the public sector allocate employees after about 10-15 years of service 20 days of vacation per year, and by the end of their careers, up to 30 days of vacation per year (ref. CA Dept. of Personnel Administration, Leave Benefits). This amount of paid vacation is rarely offered to employees in the private sector – with many small companies offering virtually no vacation to their employees, a generous assumption might be 10 days, half as much as public sector vacation benefits. With respect to paid holidays, the typical public sector benefit is at least 12 days, while small private companies often only award six (Christmas, New Year, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day and Thanksgiving), if that. In addition to vacation and holidays, many local governments and various state units also offer paid “personal days,” something nearly unheard of in the private sector. It is also common for sick time to be accrued without limit in the public sector, also something nearly unheard of in the private sector. And self-employed workers, of course, get nothing.

In order to continue to make conservative assumptions, however, one may estimate the average number of paid days off in the private sector to be 20 per year (probably high) and the average number of paid days off in the public sector to be 30 per year (probably low). How does this all add up?

The average public sector worker makes $65,000 per year, with the employer contributing an additional 21,450 for their retirement pension, $1,950 for their retirement health insurance, $3,250 for their current health insurance and other benefits, and they earn vacation worth an additional $10,575 – making their average total compensation $102,225 per year. It is interesting to note that the benefits as a percent of total compensation in this analysis agree with the Berkeley study – 36.4% vs. 35.7%, because the Berkeley study has almost certainly understated the value of the required pension fund contribution, which is another reason why the assumptions made here to estimate the value of all the other public employee non-pension benefits are probably conservative.

The average private sector worker makes $46,500 per year, with the employer contributing an additional $4,650 for their social security, medicare, and 401K, $2,325 for their current health insurance and other benefits, and they earn vacation worth an additional $4,113 – making their average total compensation $57,558 per year. The average private sector worker’s benefits as a percent of total compensation in this analysis is 19%, not 30% as claimed in the Berkeley study. And again, the Berkeley study failed to consider any of California’s 1.4 million self-employed and part-time workers in the pool they evaluated .

It is left to the reader to decide which numbers are more accurate, the numbers put forward here, or the numbers put forward by the Berkeley research team. Similarly, it is left to the reader – and the voter – to decide whether or not the services provided by California’s state and local governments, and the skills required to render them, entitle California’s public servants to earn, on average, $102K per year, compared to average annual earnings of $57K by those of us whose taxes sustain them.

California Voter Attitudes Towards Public Sector Unions

December 13, 2010

UnionWatch recently commissioned a survey of 800 voters in California to explore public support for measures to rein in the power of public employee unions. Here are the principal findings and conclusions. The interviews were conducted between September 29th and October 5th, 2010. The margin of error associated with the results is +/- 3.5%. To summarize some of these:

Do California Voters View Public Employee Unions as Having Too Much Influence?

People tend to view public employee unions as very influential: The survey looked at this in some detail and found the same: 51% of the voters believe labor unions representing public employees have too much influence in state and local government.

Questions about specific public employee unions only yielded the result that the CTA is seen as too influential, followed by the Correctional Peace Officers. Even those two specific unions are less likely to be seen as influential than the generic phrase ‘labor unions representing public employees.

For the most part all subgroups of the electorate agreed with this question; we found some differences but they were relatively small. Significantly more likely to feel public employee unions have too much influence are:

√ Males over 45: this group is both more likely to pay attention to the news and more informed of current affairs, and is more conservative particularly on fiscal issues.

√ Conservative Republicans

√ Males who are political independents; in the last few years this has been a fairly conservative group on fiscal issues

Significantly less likely to feel this way are

√ Union members

√ Younger women (under 45)

√ African Americans

Other salient union issues raised with voters were inability to fire, followed by pension abuse, followed by salary disparity. Here are the survey results on these topics:

√ 62% feel it is accurate to say that unions make it impossible to for a government employee who is not doing his or her job

√ 64% feel it is accurate to say that unions use their political influence to get pay and benefits for public employees that we simply cannot afford.


√ 43% feel public employees make more than people in comparable positions in the private sector, 19% about the same amount and 16% feel they make less. Twenty-two percent did not know enough to say.

√ 62% feels public employees get more generous pensions than people in the private sector, 13% about the same and 9% feel public employee pensions are less generous. We asked a different version of this question which included a more complete description of benefits, mentioning health and dental, paid vacations and sick leave. The results were the same, however.

More information does make a difference. Respondents were asked relatively early in the questionnaire whether people felt something needed to be done to limit the influence of public employee unions, and asked a similar question at the end of the questionnaire; in between our respondents were exposed to a large number of the pro’s and con’s of doing so. The later question shows a substantially higher level of support for limiting the influence of public employees:

Question 15: is legislation needed to limit the influence of unions representing public employee?  Needed 45 Not needed 45

Question 60: Would you support or would you oppose passing laws to limit the influence of public employee unions? Support 60 Oppose 34

The most problematic question is what to do. Here are responses to three options:

A follow up question asking people to select which proposal they liked best provided a slightly different view of things, this one suggesting voluntary membership is a somewhat stronger candidate:

People don’t ‘get’ the connection between union dues and excessive pay and benefits.

When we asked questions connecting the dots between union influence and pay and benefits people agree the questions were accurate by 2 to 1 margins.

People don’t want to deal with part of the problem (union contributions) they want to deal with all campaign contributions (and include corporate contributions). The survey confirmed this finding. As we reported earlier, 59% of the voters support a measure to no longer allow government to withhold that portion of dues that is used for political purposes. We half sampled this question with a different version that banned both government withholding and corporations withholding political contributions from their paychecks. We found substantially stronger support for the version of the question that included the language on corporations (70%) then the language that did not (59%).

A different question on this issue looked at it from the opposite angle, by looking at the impact of the argument unions have used against previous reform efforts. A clear majority finds it convincing that it is unfair to restrict public employee unions without also doing something about the influence of corporations:

The survey also looked at the context in which this issue is likely to be debated. The findings of these questions generated few if any surprises. The dissatisfaction of the voters with the direction California is going in has been document in many other surveys; also well known is that this dissatisfaction goes well beyond a concern about the economy, but also includes governance. Our look at this confirmed this, finding in addition that there is a large difference between state government and local government. People are far more likely to think that state government in Sacramento needs to change than that their local government needs to change:

The same difference was found for the extent to which people feel decision making is driven by special interests, rather than made to the benefit of the citizenry. When it came to state government, 72% felt decisions are made to benefit special interests. In the case of their region’s local government 46% felt this was the case, while 45% felt decisions are made for the most part to benefit residents.

The pension crisis in particular is likely to be an on-going problem that will provide support for the argument that change is needed to limit the influence of public employee unions. As we have mentioned most people are aware that public employee pensions are too rich and agree that you can connect union influence to excessive pensions. In addition to these we found substantial support for pension reform, even when questions were asked the ‘pushed back’ with the opposing point of view:

√ 67% supports a proposal to shift new hires to a 401K plan, while keeping current employees on the retirement system that is in place today.

√ Support for this proposal was dramatically lower (48%) when a carve-out was included for police and fire fighters. People who want pension reform want to reform all pensions. The open ends suggest that there is some awareness of the contracts with the prison guards, although very few people mentioned it.

√ 48% agreed reform is needed in view of the $500 billion unfunded liability, while 39% agreed there was a problem, but that we should not reduce pensions, for police and fire fighters in particular.

Fundamental attitudes:

Our previous work on attitudes towards labor unions has found consistently that the voting public can be divided into 3 groups. First a group of hard core union supporters, typically on the left or members of union families. Second a group of hard core anti-union folks, typically conservative men. The 3rd is an in between group which does not have strong feelings one way or the other.

The problem with union reform measures is that the core anti-union group is well short of 50% of the vote, and unions have been successful in persuading the middle group to vote with union supporters.

It may be that as a result of the pension scandal the math is changing a bit, at least as far as California is concerned. When at the end of the questionnaire we attempted to do such a segmentation we found that the size of the anti union group was well over 50% of the vote. This is not to say that this is true in California today. We used questions at the end of the sample to conduct this segmentation, and found it after our sample had heard about and been asked about a variety of pension / budget etc., and that our questions were focused specifically on public employee unions. In other words, the data suggest that with some education a coalition greater than 50% of the vote can be built.

It continues to be true that majorities of the voters agree with both sides of the debate; for instance:

√ 60% agree that unions are doing to government what they did to the airline, auto and steel industries.

√ 65% agree police officers need strong union protections

However, the current fiscal crisis and news coverage of the pension abuses have created an opportunity in which a majority of the voters supports reforms. A question (Q39) that best summarizes the relative balance of opinion found the 54% agrees with the premise that reform is needed, while 37% feels it is unfair to limit public employee unions without also limiting the influence of corporations.

This question also allows us to look at demographic segmentation:

√ Political ideology appears to be the most significant driver: liberals oppose reform, while conservatives support it. Partisan differences match ideological differences as do regional differences.

√ Other demographics don’t have much of an effect; age and gender differences are minimal, for instance.

√ Among people who are currently union members 40% agrees reforms are needed, while 50% agree with the union point of view. Former union members and people who have never been union members agree with the case for reform 60% of the time.


We tested a variety of arguments for their persuasive effect and found there were some with a reasonably good impact. We use a scale that asks people how convincing they find an argument; our rule of thumb is that to pack some punch at least 30% should find something very convincing. If 40% responds that way you’ve got something and scores of 50% or higher are very powerful. Most of the arguments we tested (Q40 to Q48) hit the 30% benchmark and a few hit the 40% level:

√ Public employee unions spend $250M / year on political activities

√ Double dipping on pensions, make more in retirement then when they were working

√ LA unfired spends millions on teachers it cannot fire


1. Because of the budget crisis and publicity covering the pension abuses a measure to limit the influence of public employees has good odds of passing. Core attitudes are not violently anti-union, but there are enough people who see problems with public employee unions. It is important to remember that we only got a clear majority of support for reform at the end of the questionnaire. In the early portions of our interview our sample split down the middle on the question whether reform is needed.

2. There are good arguments to support reform, mostly highlighting the magnitude of the influence of unions and the abuses that have resulted. The pension issue is a big one, but the public is impressed by other problems as well.

3. While the impact of arguments is good, it is our belief that it is more important to get the correct measure. The differences in support levels between the various options we tested is very large; although this is an apples to oranges comparison the differences in support for policies is larger than the differences in impact of various arguments. To put this point differently, there is a majority support for reform, but the specifics of reform will be at least as important as the arguments in determining the ultimate outcome;

a. Easiest to sell is making union membership voluntary.

b. Hardest to sell (probably) is a measure to ban government collection of dues for political purposes.

c. It will be a lot easier to sell a measure that deals with both corporate and union contributions than with one that only deals with union contributions.

To view the entire survey results, click here.

Public Sector Unions & Political Spending

September 23, 2010

Working from the bottom up, it is virtually impossible to extract accurate figures to quantify just how much money public sector unions spend on political activity. For example, money spent at the state level on politics, as tracked by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, or, in California, as tracked by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, only track one subset of political spending. These figures, staggering though they may be, don’t show data for local races (every city council, county board of supervisors, water board, school board, police commission, fire commission, etc.) – and, equally significant, these databases are unable to clearly identify the source of donations that have been run through foundations or independent expenditure campaigns, or political parties – often several times – before appearing on a candidate or issue campaign’s disclosure report.

For these reasons, in order to get a good idea of what public sector unions are really spending on political activity, you have to work from the top down. Using California as an example, you can estimate how much public sector unions spend on state and local politics each year if you can accurately identify three variables: (1) How many public sector workers are members of unions, (2) what the average annual union dues payment is per worker per year, and (3) what percentage of union dues are used by the unions for political activity.

Answering the first question is probably the easiest. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in California in 2008 there were approximately 400,000 state government workers (ref. 2008 Public Employment Data, State) and approximately 1,450,000 local government workers (ref. 2008 Public Employment Data, Local). This means there are about 1.85 million state and local government workers in California.

To determine how many of these workers are unionized, there are at least two sources available, one is an authoritative study from around 2002 entitled “California Union Membership, A Turn of the Century Portrait,” which references data from the California Dept. of Industrial Relations, as well as data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and corroborates this data with a series of surveys administered to union locals throughout California. This study determined that, at that time, 53.8% of California’s public sector workers were unionized.

Another more recent source of information comes from, an online database, updated annually, that tracks union membership and coverage, constructed by Barry Hirsch (Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University) and David Macpherson (Department of Economics, Trinity University). Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they have compiled a variety of interesting data, including “Union Membership, Coverage, Density, and Employment by State and Sector, 1983-2009.” By clicking on the 2009 link provided under this section on the left column of their home page, a spreadsheet comes up with a number consistent with the earlier 2003 findings, that is, 55.8% of California’s state and local government workers are now unionized. This means there are just over 1.0 million unionized state and local government workers in California. How much do they pay each year in dues?

According to a July 7th, 2010 guest editorial published in the San Jose Mercury entitled “Teachers’ unions political funding inappropriate,” authored by reform activist Larry Sand, “Teachers’ dues in California average about $1,000 per teacher per year, with about 30 percent of it going for political spending.”

What about police, firefighters, corrections officers, and other public safety personnel – virtually all of whom are now unionized in California – who comprise about 13% of the state and local government workforces – about 240,000 employees? How much do they pay annually in union dues? According to information provided by Vallejo, California’s post-bankruptcy City Manager, Joseph Tanner, and as reported by George Will in a Sept. 11th, 2008 Washington Post column entitled “Pension Time Bomb,” “using fiscal 2007 figures, each of the 100 firefighters paid $230 a month in union dues and each of the 140 police officers paid $254 a month, giving their unions enormous sums to purchase a compliant city council.” If this is typical, it would equate to at least $2,750 per year in union dues for police and firefighters in California. Even if the Vallejo situation is far from typical, it’s probably accurate to estimate California’s public safety workers pay their unions at least $1,000 per year in union dues.

Between teachers and public safety employees you have accounted for about 55% of California’s unionized public employees. Getting information on each of the unions may yield more startling total union revenues, but if you simply assume that public employees who are bureaucrats, nurses, administrators, maintenance employees, etc., are paying on average $500 each year in dues to their unions, then you can calculate the average payment for the entire 1.0 million unionized California state and local public employees is $750 per year. This is probably a conservative estimate, but using this number yields a total dues revenue to California’s public sector unions of $750 million per year. How much of this is used for political activity?

Returning to Larry Sand’s commentary, 30% of CTA funds are allegedly used for political activity. Most inside observers I’ve talked with suggest the percentage is higher than this, for a variety of reasons. If you review the California Fair Political Practices Commission website, don’t just look for data on election financing. Review the public disclosures by lobbying firms, and click on the pages that list their clients. Despite the unceasing uproar over the pernicious influence of “corporate lobbyists,” estimates of how much of the overall revenue to lobbying firms come from the public sector nearly always exceed 50%, and the source of this money is not just public sector unions, and their many political action committees and other organizations, but also from public agencies themselves! If one considers the level of power exercised by union operatives over public agencies – where the political appointees who supposedly manage these agencies come and go, but union power is a continuous reality – you can begin to imagine how the political agenda of taxpayer-funded public agencies and the public sector unions who influence these agencies are usually one and the same.

Another argument supporting the estimate that at least a third of union dues go to support political activity – if not much more – is the ability of the unions to reallocate money to political activity from their general fund when they choose. A recent example, reported on July 7th, 2010 in the Education Intelligence Agency blog post entitled “California Teachers Association Shifts $2 Million of Dues Money to PAC,” states the following:  “CTA very much wants Jerry Brown elected governor and Tom Torlakson as state superintendent of public instruction. So, for a single year, they increased the PAC allocation to $26.30 [per month, up from $18.30 per month], without raising total dues any additional amount. This maneuver will generate an additional $2 million or more for the PAC.” How this loophole works in California is also explained, “This sleight-of-hand would not be permitted at the federal level. But because state law allows the union to collect dues and PAC money in the same lump sum, CTA can claim that the general fund money is not the exact same money being added to the PAC coffers.”

There’s more. When assessing public sector union influence on politics, there are in-kind contributions that, while reportable, cannot be objectively quantified. What would it cost a private sector interest to send busloads of activists to events to demonstrate for the TV cameras, or use other assets such as existing office resources, in order to wage a political campaign? Whenever a public entity does this, they are required to register this as an “in-kind” donation, and assign a monetary value to this. But these in-kind values can be understated in the mandatory disclosures, and more significantly, these are contributions that are in addition to the hard costs that are funded through collection of union dues.

Finally, what about the indirect influence of public sector unions, the way they trade on the credibility of public servants – firefighters and police officers in particular – to advance their agenda in political campaigning? What about the influence of activist teachers in our public schools and universities, who advocate ideologies consistent with their union leadership when teaching impressionable young students, even when these ideologies may be counter to mainstream political sentiment?

Taking all this into account, the calculations that come out of this exercise are probably conservative – California’s 1.0 million unionized public sector employees times dues of $750 per year times one-third equals $255 million per year, over $20 million per month. This is what public sector unions are probably spending on politics, and for the many reasons detailed here, this number is probably quite low compared to reality.

The implications of this are clear: In California, public sector unions enjoy an overwhelming financial advantage in virtually every political cause or candidate they support. They have used this advantage to take over California’s State Senate and State Assembly, as well as many of California’s City Councils, County Boards of Supervisors, and various local administrative districts, especially in the major urban areas. In turn, this has resulted in years of relentless and unwarranted increases to public sector employee pay and benefits, to the point where public sector employees in California now easily enjoy pay and benefits that are, on average, at least twice what people earn on average in the private sector. Union control of California’s state and local governments has also resulted in a big-government agenda being successfully advanced for decades, meaning the number of government jobs and programs is swollen well beyond what might be optimal for California’s economy and private taxpayers.

If none of this seems compelling given the alleged power of California’s corporate interests, one may consider the following: (1) Corporations are reluctant to fight the unions – whenever corporate interests begin to support public sector union reform, the unions threaten retaliatory legislation and initiatives. To-date, corporations have consistently backed down in the face of these threats. (2) Many corporations don’t care if the state government is inefficient via unionization. In some respects, they actually welcome the tax burden and the increased regulations, because large corporations are better able to withstand the higher overhead, and better able to employ lobbyists to garner a share of the spoils in the form of subsidies or special exemptions. Their smaller emerging competitors, however, cannot withstand these impacts, and hence are undermined as competitors. To think California’s public sector unions provide “balance” to corporate interests is naive.

Anyone who thinks it will be easy to rescue California from the grip of public sector unions is encouraged to go out and raise campaign donations from people and organizations who don’t have to give you a dime if they don’t want to. Then compare this to the $20 million per month that perpetually flows into the political coffers of California’s public sector unions through automatic withholding of union member dues. And never forget, as a taxpayer, this is your money they have used to take control and bankrupt our state.

California Firefighter Compensation

August 31, 2010

On August 4th an interesting analysis of public sector compensation was posted on the blog Inflection Point Diary entitled “How to Figure Out How Much Money a Local Government Manager Makes.” In this decidedly conservative analysis, the conclusion was that “real annual compensation [is] at least 33 percent higher than the ‘salary’ the city would have told you about if you called to ask this question.”

This 33% is typically called salary overhead, and must include the current year funding required for everything not included in straight salary – such as the value of all current employee benefits, as well as the current year funding requirements for all future retirement benefits for the employee. In the private sector, a generous overhead percentage would be about 25% – about 9% for the employer’s contribution to social security and medicare, a 6% employer contribution to the employee’s retirement savings account, and roughly another 10% for the employer’s contribution towards the employee’s current health benefits.

If only the difference between private sector employee overhead were only 33% vs. 25%, however. In reality, because public sector employees receive defined retirement benefits that are anywhere between 3x and 10x (that’s right 10x, ref. Social Security Benefits vs. Public Sector Pensions) better than someone with a similar salary history can expect from social security, and because these future benefits must be funded as part of a public employee’s total compensation each year, public sector salary overhead can often reach 100%. This is particularly true for public employees who work in safety-related occupations, such as police officers and firefighters (ref. The Price of Public Safety). With all this in mind, how much do firefighters really make?

To perform this analysis I obtained payroll data for the firefighters employed by the City of Sacramento. The data is for the most recent 12 months, and does not include the top management of the fire department. It does include data for 543 individuals. The numbers are probably a bit low, on average, because there are undoubtedly people on this list who didn’t complete a full year of work, but the calculations to follow will assume all of the payroll data represents 12 months of full-time work.

In terms of basic pay, the “base hourly earnings” of Sacramento’s firefighters was $74,000 per year. Overtime, on average only added $10K to that total, which suggests that – at least in Sacramento’s case – overtime is not creating a crippling additional burden to the department expenses. But when you add “incentive earnings,” “holiday payoff,” “other earnings,” “sick payoff,” “other payoffs,” and “vacation payoff” to the total, the average firefighter in Sacramento makes $101K per year. This does not include health and retirement benefits, however.

To get to the true number, I then reviewed the current Labor Agreement in force between the Sacramento Firefighters Union Local 522, and the City of Sacramento. I then verified with a senior attorney with the City of Sacramento that certain of my assumptions were correct. In particular, the City pays 100% of firefighters current and retirement health insurance benefits, and the City pays 100% of firefighters retirement pension contributions. So what is all of this worth?

Calculating the value of current benefits is relatively easy, particularly if you simply want to pick a conservative number. In the firefighters labor contract, health insurance benefits are covered up to a maximum of $1,200 per month, and after 20 years of service, the City pays 100% of this coverage for life. The City also pays a uniform reimbursement of $871 per year, tuition reimbursement of up to $1,500 per year, along with life insurance, and subsidized parking or subsidized mass transit benefits. There are certainly other benefits not identified in a relatively cursory review of the 81 page labor agreement Sacramento’s firefighters are under, but it is fair to assume the value of current benefits averages about $12,000 per year, raising the total compensation for the average Sacramento firefighter to $113K per year. But we haven’t yet accounted for the current year funding requirements for future benefits, such as retirement health and pension payments.

If you refer to Sacramento’s reported payroll data, the average pension fund contribution per firefighter per year is $31K, which means – since the City pays 100% of this contribution and the firefighters contribute zero in the form of payroll withholding – the average compensation for the average Sacramento firefighter is actually $144K per year. But it doesn’t end here, because these pension fund contributions are based on CalPERS official return on investment projection for their fund, which is 4.75% per year, after adjusting downwards for inflation. I would argue that the chances that CalPERS is actually going to earn this sort of real, inflation-adjusted return is zero. For much more on why it is absurd to expect a 4.75% year-over-year return on hundred billion dollar funds in this era, read The Razor’s Edge – Inflation vs. Deflation, Pension Funding & Rates of Return, and Sustainable Pension Fund Returns.

For these reasons, a truly conservative fiscal strategy for pensions would be a pay-as-you-go model, where pension fund allocations aren’t even invested because the present value of the money is not discounted. Using such assumptions would go a long way towards guaranteeing solvency to pension funding, and would dismantle the pernicious alliance of public sector pension funds and Wall Street brokers and speculators (ref. The Axis of Wall Street & Unions). And why should public sector employees collectively invest taxpayer’s money into public equities and other private sector investments where they (1) exercise influence over the management of these companies as shareholders, (2) reap the sole benefit of windfall returns from these investments when they occur, and (3) compel taxpayers to make up the shortfall whenever these investments do not perform adequately? But just in the interests of presenting a realistic calculation of what firefighters in Sacramento are really making each year in total compensation, let’s use a rate of return that might actually be achievable, one-half the rate CalPERS clings to, a return of 2.375%. What happens?

As explored in the posts Maintaining Pension Solvency, and Real Rates of Return, where charts are depicted showing the entire logic of this calculation, if you assume 30 years working, 30 years retired, a pay history wherein annual salary doubles in real dollars over the employee’s career, and a retirement pension based on 90% of the employee’s final year of pay, at a fund return of 4.75%, to maintain a solvent pension fund you would have to set aside 30% of the employee’s salary each year. This 30% calculation is a bit lower than the percentage actually being set aside by the City of Sacramento for their firefighters. The 34.9% of salary that Sacramento contributes into CalPERS for each firefighter probably reflects the fact that CalPERS is currently underfunded, plus other more conservative assumptions than are made in this simplistic example. The point is this: If you make these assumptions and use a projected rate of return of half what CalPERS still claims they can earn, you will get a result that is, if anything, too low. And based on a rate of return of 2.375%, it is necessary to contribute 60% of salary into CalPERS each year to keep each firefighter’s pension solvent.

Total compensation has to include current year funding requirements for future benefits. Using a realistic rate of return of 2.375% (after adjusting downward for inflation), pension funding requirements double, which means the average firefighter in Sacramento – if these pension commitments are honored – is really making $174K per year. And while the City of Sacramento doesn’t accrue for, much less fund, their future obligation to provide retirement healthcare benefits to their firefighters, it is still a liability, and it is still necessary to apply the present value of these future costs to the years these employees are actually working. This fact will easily put the annual total compensation for the average Sacramento firefighter at $180K per year.

So how much do firefighters in Sacramento work, in order to earn $180K per year on average? Returning to the labor agreement, firefighters working the “suppression” shifts, i.e., most of them, the guys who staff the firehouses and are on call 24 hours per day, typically work two 24 hour shifts every six days. That is they work a 24 hour shift one in every three days. During these 24 hour shifts, most of the time, they have time to eat and sleep, in addition to performing their duties. But if you review the agreement, you will see that by the midpoint in their careers, after 15 years, firefighters will earn the following quantity of 24 hour shifts off with pay – 6.53 for holidays, 9.33 for vacation, and 2.0 for personal time. This means, not including sick leave, the average firefighter works 2 shifts of 24 hours every 7 days. Two days per week. This estimate is not significantly skewed by overtime pay, since on average, Sacramento firefighters are only logging about 8% overtime hours.

One can make as much or as little as one wishes with these numbers. There is nothing here suggesting firefighters are overpaid or underpaid. Because before having a discussion regarding whether or not firefighters are overpaid or underpaid, it is important to simply present the facts – here is how much firefighters are paid. It is left to each reader, voter, financial analyst, policymaker, and firefighter to ask themselves:  Should firefighters make $180K per year, on average, to work two 24 hour shifts per week, and can we afford this? And should the premium, in terms of salary overhead, for public safety personnel be nearly 100%, if not more?

The Price of Public Safety

July 15, 2010

There is nothing wrong with paying a premium to public safety personnel because of the risks they take. And while it is true there are other career choices that are riskier than public safety jobs, and while it is also true that on average, public safety personnel in California – according to CalPERS own actuarial data – have life expectancies that are virtually the same as the rest of us, it is still appropriate to pay public safety personnel a premium. After all, we never know when these people may stand on the front lines when something extraordinary happens – such as what occurred in New York City on Sept. 11th, 2001. People who work in public safety live with this knowledge every day, and they should be compensated appropriately for that.

The question is how much of a premium is appropriate, and how much of a premium can we afford as a society? Should a fire fighter make more than a medical doctor? Should a police officer make more than an engineer?

In order to get an idea of what public safety employees in California actually make, I obtained a roster that showed the total compensation paid to each employee of a Southern California city. Out of respect for the employees noted on this roster, I won’t identify the city, much less reveal the names of these individuals. And it is fair to state this city probably has a median income somewhat higher than the average for California. It would certainly be interesting as follow-up to obtain this sort of information for other California cities. But even taking all of these factors into consideration, the amounts these folks are making is startling – particularly when you adjust for realistic current year funding obligations for future retirement health and pension benefits.

In our example city, using actual data, the fire department has about 100 full time positions. The average annual compensation for these firefighters, if you include current benefits and current funding for future benefits, is $179K per year. But it doesn’t end there, because the pension funding percentage is calculated at 34% of earnings. As argued in “Maintaining Pension Solvency,” if you calculate pension funding requirements for a safety employee in California based on after-inflation returns of 3.0% instead of CalPERS official rate of 4.75%, you need to increase the pension withholding as a percent of payroll by 20%! Making this adjustment yields an average firefighter compensation of $202K per year. And even this figure probably fails to adequately account for current funding requirements for future supplemental retirement health benefits.

For our example city’s police department, using actual data, the police department has about 150 full time positions. The average annual compensation for these police officers, if you include current benefits and current funding for future benefits, is $174K per year. If you increase the pension withholding percentage by 20%, in order to reflect realistic rates of future pension fund returns, you will calculate an average police officer compensation of $197K per year – again, probably not including enough to fund future supplemental retirement health benefits.

It is important to emphasize these amounts – roughly $200K per year each – are not for senior management, or even senior employees. This is the average, taking into account entry level public safety employees as well as senior public safety employees.

It is interesting to note what the rest of the employees, the non-safety personnel, make in our sample city – making the same adjustments, their total compensation averages $118K per year. That is still quite a bit, considering many of these jobs are relatively unskilled. To put this in perspective, the average private sector worker in California averages $40K per year in compensation – one third what the non-safety workers average in our sample city.

Should a non-safety local public employee workforce, one including a large percentage of relatively unskilled positions, have an average compensation per employee of $118K per year? Should safety employees make, on average, $200K per year? Can we afford this?

What is clear over the past several years is that as pay stagnated in the private sector, public sector employees continued to receive regular cost-of-living increases. Over the past 10-15 years, public employees also received dramatic increases to their retirement benefits. And as housing prices soared, millions of Californians borrowed against their home equity, and many of them are now paying dearly for that mistake. There are undoubtedly many public sector employees who were caught up in the borrowing frenzy, and are now on the edge financially – but it is fair to wonder why they should be immune from the same cutbacks that have left so many people in the private sector unemployed, or under-employed, or compensated at rates that are a fraction of what they were during the bubble booms.

It is also fair to wonder why public sector employees should not be obligated to plan and prepare and save, if they want a comfortable retirement. For non-safety personnel in public service, it is fair to wonder – since they now make more, not less, than private sector workers for similar work requiring similar skills – why in their retirement they shouldn’t simply collect social security and medicare like the rest of us. And even if public safety employees should collect something better than social security in recognition of their role as first responders, it is fair to wonder why their retirement pensions should be literally five times more than the social security payments due retired private sector workers with similar salary histories. As documented in “Funding Social Security vs. Public Sector Pensions,” the fiscal crisis facing social security is trivial and easily solved, whereas the fiscal crisis facing public sector pensions is catastrophic and can only be solved either through massive benefit cuts or crippling new taxes.

It is difficult to dispute the contention that the price of public safety cannot be too high. It is difficult to overstate the appreciation anyone should feel for people who stand between us and chaos – the people who protect us, the people who rescue us, the people who save our property. But those people themselves should understand the price we’re currently paying is elevated because of collective bargaining and overwhelming political clout, and is dangerously out of touch with market realities. It would be helpful for everyone to consider the choices involved – cuts to pay and benefits vs. cuts to services, cuts to pay and benefits vs. crippling taxes and economic decline, cuts to pay and benefits vs. investments to advance our technology, our infrastructure, and our military security. All of these elements must be balanced, yet are currently grossly out of balance, because in one way or another, all of them may quite legitimately be described as issues of safety and security for California and the nation.

The Real Reason for College Tuition Increases

June 8, 2010

The past year has seen a wave of protests by California’s public university students against tuition increases. These students have often been encouraged by their professors. But maybe the people encouraging them are the people they should be protesting against. Tuition increases are necessary because of increasing expenses, and the single most significant source of expenses in California’s university system are the personnel costs. So how much does a professor make? Could the solution to California’s higher-education budget crisis be not to raise tuition, but instead to lower rates of compensation?

It isn’t hard to get an idea what taxpayers and students end up paying our college personnel. One can refer to the Sacramento Bee’s “Search for State Worker Salaries” link, where you can enter the first and last name of a full time state university system employee and it will display their salary for the most recent year. For this analysis, I went to a department website and got the name of an associate professor with one of the social sciences at U.C. Davis, and learned that this individual earned a salary of $89,467 last year. According to the department website, this associate professor earns $89K per year in return for teaching (this spring quarter) one class, that meets for two hours on one afternoon per week. The professor is also obligated to be available to his students for office hours for one hour per week, immediately after class.

Clearly there is more to this professor’s job than showing up to school for three hours per week. In order to earn $89K per year this person has to prepare lesson plans, grade papers and exams, and presumably engage in research. And spring quarter may be a light quarter, and usually this professor may have two classes, or even three classes, requiring a presence on campus for 15 or even 20 hours per week. But before considering whether or not a typical social sciences professor in California’s university system actually works full time, let’s calculate how much their benefits are worth. Because total compensation has to include all costs, including current benefits and current funding obligations for future retirement benefits.

There is a Total Compensation Calculator provided by the UC Davis Dept. of Human Resources that can get us started. Assuming this individual is single and has no dependents, and elects to receive PPO Health and Dental Insurance coverage, and also taking into account the annual funding being set aside by the university for their retirement pension, their actual compensation per year is not $89,467, but actually $111,260. And it doesn’t end there.

As discussed in earlier posts, specifically in Sustainable Pension Fund Returns, but also explored in California’s Personnel Costs, Maintaining Pension Solvency, and elsewhere, it is not likely that the pension funding obligation disclosed in the “Total Compensation Calculator,” in the case of our social sciences professor, $15,755 per year, is going to be adequate. This is because the pension funds currently assume they can earn a real rate of return of 4.75% per year – that’s the return on the total fund investments after inflation – when in reality a sustainable return over the next few decades is unlikely to exceed 3.0% per year. Our social sciences professor, like most all non-safety personnel in the UC System, will get a retirement pension according to the following formula: # years worked x 2.5% x final year salary (ref. University of California Retirement Plan). It is reasonable to assume they will work 30 years, live for 30 years in retirement, and collect 30 x 2.5% = 75% of their final salary as a retirement pension for 30 years, or $67,100 per year (with cost of living adjustments) for the rest of their life. This is, by the way, about triple what someone can expect after working 40 years and then collecting social security, but more to the point, will a contribution of $15K per year for 30 years yield a sufficient amount of money to fund a pension of $67K per year for 30 years? One must fight the temptation to let the mind wander, because the next few facts are key to understanding one of the biggest financial tsunamis the world has ever seen, and it is just offshore.

At a CalPERS official projected rate of pension fund returns (after inflation) of 4.75%, a 75% pension for 30 years, funded by 30 years of contributions, would require an annual contribution of 25% of salary, or $22,367 per year.

At a more realistic projected rate of pension fund returns (after inflation) of 3.00%, a 75% pension for 30 years, funded by 30 years of contributions, would require an annual contribution of 41% of salary, or $36,681 per year. Care to wager as to which figure is safer to use? Remember you’re wagering on the future of your children and your nation.

By this reasoning, our social studies professor doesn’t make “total compensation” of $111,260 per year, but $132,186 per year. But we’re not through. Returning to our handy “Total Compensation Calculator,” provided by UC Davis, the following footnote is instructive: “The value of UC’s generous sick leave and vacation time is not included in this calculation.” So how generous is this benefit, and how does that compare to the sick leave and vacation times typically afforded in the private sector?

If you refer to the UC Davis “Accrual of Vacation” page, you will see an employee, on average during their career, will enjoy four weeks vacation per year – 20 working days. Similarly, on the page referencing holidays, you will see they enjoy 13 holidays per year. These are conservative numbers, of course. In reality our social studies professor gets the Christmas break, a few weeks, the Spring break, a few more weeks, and the whole summer off, a few more months – and we haven’t calculated the value of their sick time policy, as the UC Davis HR Dept. helpfully suggests we consider. But even if you simply compare the 33 paid days off, as though school was in session 52 weeks a year, you are still seeing our professor enjoy at least 50% more days off than the average private sector worker. Pick a number – let’s tack on the value of 16 days off by taking a daily rate of $89K / 2,000 x 8 = $356 and add another $5,696 to our total compensation, to get ourselves to a grand total of $137,882.

This sort of pay is not on the high side, it’s actually fairly typical for employees of California’s higher education system. Take a look at all of the pay scales, again courtesy of UC Davis’s HR Dept.:  Professional & Support Staff Salary Grades, and Managers & Senior Professionals Salary Grades. You will see the lowest paid full-time position in the system is $25,668 per year. But at the lower end of the salary scale benefits actually represent a greater percentage of total compensation. If we apply our calculations used above to this lowest salary, we will see this position actually pays, including all benefits, at least $39,765 per year. This is the lowest rate of total compensation you will find. The maximum rate of pay for a UC Position, before benefits, is $282,372.

Comparisons to the private sector boggle the mind. The lowest rate of pay in the entire massive California system of higher education is more than the average income for a private sector worker in this state. Most of these workers enjoy a rate of total compensation that is only found in the highest echelons of private business. Most of them, when you include the value of their benefits, are collecting six-figure rates of compensation.

When students, abetted by their professors who apparently have ample free time, protest against rising tuition, they are failing to identify the true culprits. Because the reason our university system is going broke is because our teachers in higher education have become the most extravagantly compensated, pampered class of workers in the history of the world – and taxpayers, along with students, are forced to pay for this. And this disparity between our taxpayer-funded academic class and the rest of us is not unique. The same disparity exists in all government positions today in California. Nearly all of them are grossly overpaid.

The solution to government deficits is not to raise taxes or tuition. It is to bring rates of compensation for faculty and staff at our state funded colleges and universities down to reasonable and sustainable levels, and apply that solution across the board in all of our state and local governments. The next time a student suggests their tuition is too high because taxes are too low, ask them if they think it is fair to pay someone $138,882 per year to work one afternoon per week, and take summers off.