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Editorial: State shouldn’t pay workers at salary level of previous job

During the recent legislative session in Olympia, some senators tried to pass a bill to ensure the following in state government:

An employee who is reallocated to a job class with a lower salary range or who is appointed to a position with a lower salary range as a result of a layoff action is paid a base salary based on the salary range of the employee’s new job class without regard to the employee’s previous salary.

That’s all there was to Senate Bill 6591. And it failed.

What’s so controversial about paying someone for the work they do, rather than the work they used to do? Well, nothing if you’re in the private sector, where jobs are downsized, right-sized and otherwise scrutinized in an effort to cut costs. Even if business leaders choose to overpay their demoted workers, it doesn’t affect taxpayers or government services.

Nobody likes a pay cut, but keeping the same pay defeats the purpose of streamlining operations to save money. And yet, enough lawmakers were swayed by the “unfairness” and “hardship” of that bill to defeat it. As a result, more than 400 state employees are eligible to make more money than their job classification calls for, according to legislative reporter Jordan Schrader of the News Tribune in Tacoma. Employee unions have secured this benefit in their labor contracts, and managers can choose to extend it to non-union workers, too.

Schrader’s analysis found that affected employees are paid, on average, $6,000 above the top scale for their jobs. Many former managers are getting from $15,000 to $20,000 more. One tops $30,000.

This practice of giving demoted workers higher pay than colleagues doing the same work is a perfect example of the alternate universe of public pay and benefit packages. Consider the rationale given to the News Tribune by Matt Zuvich, a lobbyist for the Washington Federation of State Employees:

“I think a lot of times (with) deck reshuffling, you still have a person there that has all the experience and all the capabilities that they did five minutes ago.”

Sure, but they’re not doing that job anymore.

He goes on to say, “I think that it isn’t their fault that management or the Legislature or whoever has decided that they’re going to (move the) deck chairs around.”

No, it isn’t their fault. Just as it wasn’t the fault of millions of workers who were laid off or demoted in response to the Great Recession. The ripple effect from that is now being felt in government, as lagging tax revenue has caused large budget cuts, layoffs and decisions to consolidate agencies and streamline services. This reorganization isn’t meaningless, so the Titanic metaphor isn’t apt. The whole point is to balance the budget and avoid hitting future icebergs.

For instance, the Department of Enterprise Services was formed by consolidating several agencies, including the state printer. Many of those workers were reclassified into lower-paying positions but got to keep their old salaries.

It’s hard to fathom that lawmakers could support this practice, which adds $2.5 million to the state payroll each year, while cutting off aid and services to much more vulnerable people.

It needs to end.


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