Government Workers Immune from Economic Realities

In these tough economic times, Americans have been loath to open those 401(k) statements that arrive in the mail. With falling investment values and struggling private-sector retirement programs, most people understand that they will have to work later into their lives to afford a few comfortable years in a condo near some golf course. Yet there is a group of Americans that is immune from these concerns.

I'm not referring to the relatively small number of successful corporate CEOs, but to the large number of government employees who receive pension benefits far in excess of those earned by private employees. Recent pension increases have come largely under the radar. The results are dramatic as cities and counties struggle with pension-related debt. One Bay Area city, Vallejo, is facing bankruptcy thanks to a quarter of a billion dollars in pension and health care debts for its retirees. Many Californians have been taken aback by the Vallejo situation, yet the dynamic there isn't much different than the one at play throughout the United States.

For perspective, think about your retirement plan, and now take a look at how the elite caste of government workers lives in the county where I work, Orange County, California. For instance, police, firefighters, and other "public safety" workers receive what is called a "3 percent at 50" retirement plan. They can retire at age 50 after 30 years of work with 90 percent of their final year's pay, guaranteed forever courtesy of the taxpayers. Taxpayers, in fact, make all the contributions for these workers over the course of their careers. (There is a variety of ways to spike those pensions in the last year of work, one of the most frequent being the discovery of a "disability" approximately a year from the employee's retirement date, which shields 50 percent of retirement pay from taxes.)

It used to be that government workers received lower pay during their working years, in exchange for higher retirement benefits and more job security. But these days they get it all: higher pay, benefits that are an order of magnitude higher, immunity from firing except under the most egregious circumstances. Consider that deputies in the scandal-plagued Orange County Sheriff's Department -- where a grand jury recently detailed deputies who watch TV, sleep on the job, and abuse prisoners, and where the ex-sheriff is preparing for a trial on seven federal corruption charges -- often earn more than $150,000 a year, according to a recent Orange County Register report. Deputies abuse the overtime system to enhance their pay. In 2000, the sheriff granted the deputies' union what it had long wanted: a 3/12 workweek. They work six 12-hour shifts and one eight-hour shift every two weeks.