Union arguments in favor of their members’ lush pensions are falling by the wayside as the public examines the facts. For instance, union officials argue that the average public-sector pension benefit in California is “only” $30,000 a year, while neglecting to mention that the number, according to the state’s watchdog Little Hoover Commission, rises to $66,000 a year for recent retirees — a reflection of the widespread pension boosting of the past decade.
Virtually no one in the workaday private sector gets that level of guaranteed benefit, and the number of retired government employees grabbing $100,000 a year is growing by at least 40 percent a year. No wonder the public is angry. But the public is angry at more than the unsustainable pension debt and the unfair imbalance between the amounts received in the public vs. the private sector. People are getting angry at the abuses by public employees and at the lack of accountability even when miscreants are caught red-handed.
The Sacramento Bee reported recently on state employees who walk away at retirement with as much as $800,000 in unused leave — a clear violation of the rules. Now the newspaper is reporting that a “top NATO general who formerly led the California National Guard enhanced his salary during his state tenure by collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in dual pay.” Maj. Gen. William Wade padded his pay by about $155,000 — “beyond the legal limits” as the Bee put it.
There are hasty legislative proposals to stop such greedy enrichments in the future, but there’s no apparent push to put Wade — since promoted to a top NATO position in Italy — where he belongs, in the hoosegow. Somehow, when government officials commit offenses we get euphemisms about conduct being beyond legal limits and improper behavior.
Try to find any effort to deal with massive disability fraud that goes on at police and fire stations, as majorities of public safety union members discover a back injury or knee injury just in time to protect half their retirement pay from taxes.
The Public Awake
Union officials such as the Orange County Employees Association’s Nick Berardino argue that the public is demonizing public employees. In reality, the public is waking up to the scams perpetrated on us for years. A statewide union official, Art Pulaski, claims that the public is simply envious of public employees. There’s some truth to that — and why not be envious when the people who are supposed to work for us live far better than most of us, courtesy of our tax dollars? – but what these union leaders miss is the brewing anger over the accountability issue.
The private sector doesn’t work perfectly. No human endeavor does. But in my lifetime there, I have never seen managers cover up for and defend miscreants. If you don’t produce enough to justify your salary, you are gone. If you commit crimes or do things “beyond the legal limits,” corporate managers are all too happy to turn the case over to the authorities. There is too much downside in keeping around lazy, misbehaving and lawbreaking employees. It can put you out of business or can prompt prosecutors to look for fraud and other crimes.
In government, officials typically circle the wagons. The unions stand up to protect the worst of the worst. The disciplinary rules are so cumbersome that it’s generally not worth trying to do anything about misbehavior. That’s why the public schools have “rubber rooms” — places where allegedly bad teachers wile away the years receiving full pay and benefits as their cases are adjudicated at a glacial pace. That’s why police officers accused of wrongdoing and misjudgment – even misjudgments that lead to unjustified killings and violations of individual rights — end up with months of paid leave (i.e., additional vacation time), before eventually being returned to the streets after a closed process that tilts heavily in the officers’ favor.
Notice how only a handful of sleeping air traffic controllers — union members who endangered lives by neglecting their responsibilities — received suspensions and other minor punishments. There’s rarely any accountability. The California Supreme Court ruled recently in a case involving two Orange County social workers who were found by a jury to have filed false reports and held back evidence so that they could unjustly take away a woman’s two children. This is almost hard to fathom, but I’ve reported on Child Protective Services and find it easy to believe in the context of my research. Social workers have immense power and few checks and balances, and some of these workers are on power trips — “Obey or we take your kids!”
In this case, the state’s highest court upheld a verdict of nearly $5 million plus millions more in legal fees and noted that this was no isolated incident. So what happens to these people who were admonished by the courts and who put a family through more than six years of living hell?
Marcie Vreeken and Helen Dwojak were not even disciplined. As the Register’s Kimberly Edds reported, Dwojak retired in 2006, and Vreeken was promoted. Get this — Vreeken now trains other social workers. Let’s hope it doesn’t include the class, “Creative methods in snatching people’s kids.”
Orange County officials actually argued that social workers should be afforded immunity, even for wrongdoing. I recall a bill that would have done the same thing for firefighters after a D.A. had the audacity to try to prosecute a firefighter for alleged misbehavior that killed someone.
Do we really want to provide powerful government agents with full immunity even when they break the law and misuse their power? Isn’t that situation the opposite of what our nation’s founders had in mind? It’s in totalitarian nations where officials are untouchable, and lowly citizens had better obey or else.
My prediction is that the public employee issue is not going away — not simply because the pension debts are depleting budgets, but because we are only scratching the surface of the accountability issue, which touches on the foundation of what we are as a society. It’s about time that we bring on this necessary debate.
About the author: Steven Greenhut is the editor-in-chief of Cal Watchdog, an independent, Sacramento-based journalism venture providing original investigative reports and news stories covering California state government. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”