Arizona government jobs on shaky ground

Budget woes put those in once-secure public positions at the mercy of layoffs, pay cuts and reduced benefits
The Arizona Republic
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Jahna Berry and Lynh Bui

Not long ago, a government job meant almost rock-solid job security, generous benefits, and spending an entire career with one agency, city or school district.

In the post-recession job market, that's not guaranteed. In Arizona, government workers at almost every level, from park rangers to office workers to street-repair crews, face a different reality.

Under mounting pressure from tight budgets, tax-averse residents and the shaky economy, layoffs and pay cuts have become more commonplace, although many communities have been reluctant to pink-slip police officers and firefighters.

Many Arizona cities have already trimmed health benefits for future government retirees, and many leaders are exploring ways to reduce pension costs.

While hiring may pick up after the economy recovers, other trends, such as shorter government careers and less job security, may be here to stay, employment experts say.

"The longer that you had worked here . . . you were used to a certain set of rules and a certain culture, and that's hard to break," said Tempe City Manager Charlie Meyer, who has spent 36 years in city and county management positions in Virginia, Minnesota and New York state. "Our newest employees, frankly the ones who have been most vulnerable to layoff, get it."

There were 409,700 government workers in Arizona in September, according to preliminary estimates from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's down 2.6 percent from 420,400 in September 2009.

The changes in government work directly affect thousands of Arizona families. Government workers make up 17 percent of Arizona's 2.4 million non-farm workers. That's a larger percentage than other major state industries that the bureau tracks, such as construction, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality. Only one other sector, trade, transportation and utilities, employed more people - 485, 400 - federal figures show.

Scaling back

Taxpayers have been increasingly critical of how agencies such as cities, states and school districts compensate workers, said Kevin McCarthy, executive director of the Arizona Tax Research Association.

The reason "is not high science," he said.

"We are in the worst economic climate that Arizona has faced since the Great Depression. Arizona lost 300,000 jobs in the last two years," McCarthy said.

Government workers, who lost about 11,000 jobs during that period, have largely been insulated from the mass layoffs that private-sector workers have faced, he said.

"The people who have struggled through all of this are not missing this," McCarthy said. "They realize what the impact of the recession has been on them, (as opposed to) the public sector."

Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio has vocally pushed to reduce the size of city government and has advocated more privatization of public services.

Phoenix negotiated wage and benefit cuts with unions and enacted a food tax to weather last year's budget shortfall of more than $277 million.

"You have a system designed to protect itself when the focus should be on the taxpayer and the public," said DiCiccio, who is analyzing public pensions and employee salaries.

In Scottsdale, the city considered scaling back the amount of sick leave that employees can cash out. Policy makers also pushed to increase the employee contribution to health benefits.

Scottsdale must address an estimated $28.4 million general-fund budget shortfall for 2011-12 and a $22 million gap the following year.

'Demoralizing' climate

Some government workers feel like they are under attack, labor leaders say.

The anti-government worker climate is "demoralizing" and pushing longtime public servants to retire or flee to the private sector, said Ron Ramirez, head of the Coalition of Phoenix City Unions, which is composed of labor leaders from all seven of the city's bargaining units.

"We're being attacked on the outside because some in the community look at us as if we're evil rich people," said Ramirez, who works as a project manager in the city's neighborhood-services department. "People are afraid and they don't want to do it anymore. They're tired."

Ramirez said while government work is appealing because of its stability, the trade-off is lower wages compared to what the private sector offers.

"Everyone thinks that government workers are lazy, bureaucratic people," Ramirez said. "They're not. We serve the community and we serve the public."

Economic hit

Some of the calls to cut government jobs are shortsighted, adds Ken Strobeck executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

Those workers contribute much-needed money to the economy, Strobeck said.

"My opinion is a dollar is a dollar," Strobeck said. "They are buying groceries . . . and cars. They pay taxes as well."

As Arizona recovers, government hiring will come back eventually, Strobeck said.

"I think as the economy comes back, there will be more jobs that need to be done in the public sector, just like the private sector," he said.