Time for public employees to pay for health insurance

by Jim Longworth

Lost in the political turmoil of Wisconsin’s collective bargaining war is the fact that every state in the union is struggling with some sort of financial crisis, and public employees may hold the key to solving them.

Washington economists say that the recession is over, but that declaration rings hollow with our nation’s governors, who are looking for ways to deal with declining revenues. Their options are limited. Either create new sources of revenue or slash budgets, or both. For some state legislatures that means proposing unpopular tax hikes on everything from gasoline to cigarettes. For others, it means cutting much needed social services. But never in the history of American belt-tightening have lawmakers ever dared to suggest that public employees pay for their own health insurance. That is, not until now.

The New Jersey legislature, for example, passed a law requiring public employees to contribute at least 1.5 percent of their annual salary toward their own healthcare insurance. Iowa, where nearly 90 percent of all government workers pay nothing for healthcare coverage, is also considering similar legislation. And, closer to home, the North Carolina Senate has just approved a plan for our 320,000 active state employees to pay anywhere from $10.86 to $21.72 per month for an individual policy.

Proponents of the plan say it is the only way to close a $515 million gap between projected tax revenues, and medical claims. But opponents such as Democrat Doug Berger say that Republicans who favor the plan are, in effect, waging war on public employees. Berger and his colleagues on the left are singing the same old tune: Government workers make much less money than their private-sector counterparts, and giving them free healthcare insurance is the least we can do to make life easier for these underpaid servants of the people. The problem is that they are no longer underpaid. For the first time in our nation’s history, the salary disparity which exists between the two sectors now favors government employees.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and local employees earn on average about $39.60 per hour, compared with $27.42 per hour for private sector employees. That represents a 44 percent difference. On the federal level, government-worker pay exceeds that of the private sector in 83 percent of occupations, including such jobs as accountants, nurses, surveyors, janitors and chemists. The average annual salary for federal workers is $66,591, while that of their private sector counterparts is $55,500. That represents a difference of $11,091 per year, and does not include perks and benefits. For example, the average public employee receives six weeks paid vacation every year, while folks in the private sector receive an average of just nine days. Even worse, one in four private-sector workers get no paid time off at all. Speaking of benefits, that brings me back to healthcare insurance.

According to the USBLS, as a private-sector taxpayer, I earn anywhere from $6,000 to $11,000 less per year than a public employee, yet I must pay $500 per month for my individual policy, while most local, state and federal workers pay absolutely nothing for theirs. Given the bureau’s data, there is simply no longer any justification for private-sector folks to have to foot the health-insurance bill of government workers now that the latter is better paid than the former.

In times of prosperity and full employment, taxpayer-supported perks for the public sector would never be an issue. But now we are suffering the effects of bad trade policies which reward greedy CEOs for taking our jobs overseas, leading to a decimation of the manufacturing sector and a steady decline in tax revenues. Thus, Americans who are unemployed or underemployed as a result can scarcely afford to pay their own monthly premiums, much less those of public employees.

We in the private sector have spent a lifetime generating revenues that support our dedicated government workers. Now it’s their turn to return the favor by paying for their own health insurance. It’s just good public service.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).