State workers are part of the community

A recent Mail Tribune editorial contends that Service Employees International Union Local 503's offer to accept a two-year salary freeze and eight unpaid furlough days in exchange for an early contract settlement did not go far enough. The editorial board would like to see state employees lose so-called "step" adjustments as well.

At a time when state employees are working harder than ever to meet a growing need for services, this idea is misinformed and seems designed to feed upon false perceptions and stereotypes of state workers.

First, step adjustments are not "raises." They are built into a pay system designed largely to pay for itself through attrition of senior workers, and are officially designated "merit increases." They are not automatic, but earned through competent performance.

Next, state employees are as exposed to the effects of this crisis as private-sector workers. While no one can say anything for certain at the moment, we too are most certainly looking at layoffs, even with the pay cuts we are offering. And there are a great many low-wage workers in our ranks who will be put at risk by any sort of cut in pay. Nearly one in four state employees represented by SEIU makes less than $30,000 per year and nearly one in five — 18 percent — makes less than the food stamp gross monthly income limit for a family of four ($2,380 per month). We are real people with real financial problems and our families are as terrified as anyone.

But more fundamentally, the MT editorial fails to see that the state's budget woes are symptomatic of the broader financial crisis and therefore displays the precise sort of myopic, knee-jerk, antigovernment reaction that will only make this crisis worse.

Seen as part of the broader economy, state workers are not a mere expense supported by our communities; we are members of our communities. Not only do our children go to school together, not only do we attend the same churches, synagogues and mosques, we spend our money at local grocery stores, we eat at local restaurants, we buy homes from brokers who live and raise families in our communities, we pay taxes that fund schools, and roads and parks projects that employ local contractors.

Would the MT be willing to say that Boise Cascade employees need to forgo merit or longevity increases? Would they say that Harry and David's workers should take unpaid days off? Of course not! Even if those businesses are experiencing hard times, it's clear that workers in the private sector live next door and contribute to our economy. It should be just as clear that the same is true of state employees.

In addition, we provide services essential to the health of our communities. We ensure freeways and bridges are safe and college campuses operate smoothly and are able to provide quality education. We maintain Oregon's parks and make sure there are sufficient stocks of fish and other wildlife for Oregon's citizens and tourists to enjoy on weekends and vacations. We provide much-needed services to the elderly and the disabled, facilitate unemployment insurance and other forms of financial assistance to families that, increasingly of late, find they need help.

As the economist John Maynard Keynes put it, the more individuals, organizations and businesses feel threatened by the dire state of the economy, the more they tighten their purse strings. And the more they stint, the worse the economy becomes. The federal stimulus package correctly reflects that now is not the time for government to tighten its purse strings. Now is the time for government to invest in our communities, and state employees are not only members of our communities, they provide the vital services that support our communities.

That said, we realize that the state cannot print money or run deficits the way the federal government can. And that is why we have volunteered to take unpaid days off, two of them within this biennium, to help meet the state's current budget crisis. Suspending merit increases won't have an immediate impact; furlough days will. Furlough days are immediate pay cuts, not merely future lost increases, and we are offering to take these cuts, because that is what will provide a solid and immediate benefit to the state's budget.

Thus we are doing our part, in stepping up to provide critical services in a time of great need, and in volunteering to share in the sacrifice the current situation calls for from all Oregonians. Contrast this with the actions of corporations and special interests that have lobbied their way into, and continue to defend, paying a mere $10 in state income tax. Before you ask any more of state workers, why not look at those long-overdue sources of revenue and cooperative effort?

Kurt Kessler of Ashland works in Medford as a compliance specialist for the State Department of Human Services.

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