Friday, June 20, 2014

Is Publishing Public Employee Salaries The Financial Equivalent of Showing Bare Breasts?

Alaska media periodically publish lists of highest paid public employees.  There's a good public accountability reason for doing this, but only if the numbers are put in context, say if salaries and benefits are compared to substantially similar private sector salaries and benefit.

But you aren't going to get that.  Yes, you can get general salary levels for different positions, but not the names of the employee and their gross salary and benefits combined. Private companies don't have to publish that, and without that information, the public salaries don't mean anything.  Highly paid has no meaning if you aren't comparing everyone in similar jobs.  

All too often the real reason is the titillation factor - it's the financial equivalent of publishing pictures of bare breasts. It boosts ratings.  People want to see what is normally hidden - and in a place as small as Anchorage, a lot of people are going to know some people on the list.

And people generally compare their own salaries to the ones published.  "Did you see how much Sam Smith gets paid?"  If you are a high school drop out doing minimum wage work, you can get upset if you just compare it to your own salary, forgetting the extra skill level, responsibility, and education the other job requires.

I also hear talk show hosts using such lists to talk about the bloated salaries and benefits of public employees.  For people who respond to this sort of argument, my reaction is:  You shouldn't be trying to bring public sector wages and benefits down, you should be working on getting your wages and benefits up.  The long, slow war against unions means that many private sector wages are lower than they used to be (adjusted for inflation) and benefits like health insurance and pensions are rapidly disappearing.  Public sector employees often do have unions who work to protect those benefits.  

How did I get on this topic?

KTOO, according to an email sent to all UAA employees this past week, has requested the salaries of all employees and the university was giving the employees a heads up that KTOO wanted to make an easily searchable list online.  The emails said, in part:
The information we will release is limited to:
  • Employee name
  • Position, department and campus
  • Type of service (exempt/non-exempt)
  • Status (full-time, part-time, permanent/temp or student employee)
  • Bargaining unit, if applicable
  • Calendar year gross salary paid to employee
  • Calendar year employer contribution (healthcare, retirement, other benefits) 
  • Total of employee gross/employer contribution

I'm saying you need context here.  What might context look like?

1.  Comparing public salaries to similar private salaries.

Generally, higher level positions, particularly professional positions - accountants, attorneys, engineers, computer experts - that have relatively the same kinds of positions in the private sector - are highly underpaid in the public sector.  I've watched several municipal employees triple their salaries when the went to the private sector.

2.  For the university comparing full time teaching positions to administrative positions.

First, it's important to know if faculty are on nine or 12 month appointments. (Most are on nine.)
Second, it's important to distinguish between technical positions (that have private sector equivalents - such as accountants, human resources specialists, etc.) and those that don't.
Third, a huge percentage of UAA (and other university faculty) are adjunct faculty.  They aren't full time employees in tenure track positions.  They get hired to teach individual classes for a flat fee based on, mainly, how many times they've taught a class at UAA.  If you computed their salary as an hourly wage, it would be hovering around and below the minimum wage.  I suspect these people will not show up on the list.
Fourth, administrative pay, particularly at the top, has risen at a significantly faster rate, then faculty pay.  To highlight this,
Four . . . faculty members have found an unusual way to attract more attention to this critique [that administrative pay has risen faster than faculty pay.] They have applied jointly to share the job (and the $400,000 minimum salary) of the opening to lead the University of Alberta. Their application is, in part, tongue-in-cheek. The letter suggests that one of the applicants -- Renee Ward, an expert on medieval and science fiction literature at Ontario's Wilfrid Laurier University --  "with her research on monstrosity and hybridity, is eminently suited to interact effectively with various levels of government."  [From Inside Higher Ed]
University presidents do get much higher pay than faculty, but much lower pay than CEO's heading companies with similar budgets and numbers of employees.  But then private sector CEOs get pay that often has little to do with what they contribute to the organization.  It's totally based on market comparisons and I believe there are lots of very competent people who would take on those positions for a lot less and do as well if not better than the current CEO's.  And many of these positions really do require skills that one individual doesn't have.  Splitting the positions is a not a bad idea.  In practice, that already happens with various vice presidents.  We just seem to have a need to have one top dog above all the others.  

3.  There are two basic ways to determine salaries - classification systems and the market.  The first is part of the attempt to rationalize organizations that German sociologist, Max Weber, documented in his early work on what he called 'bureaucracies' which he compared to the more arbitrary and power based feudal system of governing.  Bureaucracies were an attempt to apply the scientific thinking that was transforming the world then to human organization and governance.  In many ways, it revolutionized what organizations can do, and scientific management was a large part of the US success in manufacturing in the early 20th century.   (I'd note that Weber also talked about tenure in office as a way to attract people who had spent a lot of time in preparation for their job.)

Classification is an extension of Weber's principle that workers should be paid to match their value to the organization.  It's a method to attempt to measure the value of a position to the overall output of an organization and then to compensate incumbents of those positions proportionally to what they contribute.   Things like training and education got paid more, because people with those extra skills had foregone years of higher earning earlier, to get more later.  If that education weren't rewarded with higher wages, then people wouldn't waste their time on it.  (We see that now as people with college degrees are now questioning the time and money spent if they can't get good jobs.)  Today, other key factors include both characteristics of the person and characteristics of the job.  Points are given and adjustments are made to create a large table of what every position should be paid.  Here's a link to the how the federal classification system works.

But that attempt at a rational system (and of course it has many faults because there are so many things that can't be measured and because the actual person in the position will impact how valuable it will be - those lower paid employees may do work well beyond their job title and highly paid people may do much less) is also supplemented by the market.

Thus, when you look at the university faculty pay, you'll see vast differences between positions in different disciplines.  There are several reasons:
1. for  professional fields - business, law, medicine, computers - where faculty could easily get higher paying jobs outside the university,
    a.   you have to pay more to get applicants because the competing salaries are higher
    b.   there are fewer applicants per position
2.  Newer faculty are sometimes relatively better paid than older faculty -  the rules for salary increases are set and static - you can only get certain levels of raises over a period of time. Over the years faculty reach the top level.  But starting offers for new faculty - in the hardest to recruit fields - rise quickly and their starting salaries can be much higher than the older faculties' starting salaries.  There are supposed to be salary adjustments when a faculty member can show they are significantly underpaid.
3.  Salary surveys.  The salaries for each discipline are supposed to be set by national surveys of salaries in each discipline around the country.  A faculty member could use these surveys to make the case she is underpaid.
4.  Faculty can increase their pay by teaching extra classes, by teaching over the summer, and by getting private contracts.  Private contracts may or may not increase one's salary.  For instance, the research faculty at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) are only paid a portion of their salaries by the University.  The rest they have to make up with grants and contracts for research projects, but that is billed at their university pay level.  In other cases, a government agency or a private company may contract with a school or college for training or consulting work and that would add to someone's annual salary.  In yet other cases, faculty may do private consulting on the side and this would not show up in their salary.  It's more like a second job.
5.  Faculty can bargain for higher pay by showing a job offer elsewhere that would pay them more.  If the school feels strongly and wants to keep the faculty member, they can use that offer to get the salary raised.  Or they can say, take the other job.  

Faculty Job - Teaching, Research, and Service

When you hear someone teaches three classes a week for a total of nine hours, it sounds pretty cushy.

My sense of most faculty at UAA is that they are working 60-90 hour weeks.   I found I spent two to six hours of preparation time per hour of class time, depending on how often I'd taught the class before.  Even old classes need to be made fresh every semester.  Then there is the time grading papers and advising students.  I was lucky.  I had graduate classes which were relatively small.  I could give my students extensive feedback on their papers.  But that could mean 30 to 90 minutes per paper, depending on how long it was and how good it was.
That's just teaching.  Faculty also are expected to do new research and publish at a regular clip - some departments more than others.  This is often what faculty do during their unpaid summers, because it's hard to do on top of teaching and service.  Service is the third part of the contract - participating in university governance, community service, and professional service - often at the national and international level.

It is literally impossible to do an even adequate job as a faculty member in 40 hours a week.  And to do a stellar job, you have to work far more hours.

This is just a glimpse of all the complicated context that you aren't likely to hear or read when even a reasonably responsible news media like KTOO does its story on public sector salaries.  Sorry if I rambled a bit, but I hope it gets people thinking.

Is publishing public employee salaries the financial equivalent of showing bare breasts?  There are probably times when publishing bare breasts as part of a serious news story is legitimate.  The same is true for publishing public employee salaries with names attached.  But I suspect more often than not, it's done as a quick ratings booster because it has a high gossip factor, especially when readers know people on the list.

Will KTOO, a public media organization,  publish their employee salaries and benefits?  I know they will come out much lower than state employees, but I suspect many will be higher than their private sector equivalents.  And how does Steve Lindbeck's salary (he's the CEO and General Manager at Alaska Public Media) compare to the Chancellor of UAA's salary?  What are their comparative budgets and numbers of employees?

1 comment:

  1. Heather Bryant, a Digital Services Editor at KTOO in Juneau, is spearheading the move to publicize online all UA employee wages & benefits. She champions the Internet as the end-all source of data. At LinkedIn, she writes, 'I'm fascinated by data journalism and data visualization and am particularly interested in the role of new technology in journalism." Bryant was at one time editor of the Sun Star, the student newspaper at UAF where, as she writes, a "large project that I worked on was the searchable salary database of the University of Alaska." Those salaries have been searchable for some time, though probably out of date now. In regards to her current project at KTOO, Bryant has said that it is not just university employees whose salaries she hopes to make accessible but those of all state employees. She has been identified as a photographer. As a writer, she is a hack, her prose no more than pedestrian boilerplate. Which may have little to do with her interest in publicizing what Alaska's public employees earn. How high up the ladder will KTOO go? Will we learn what the UA administrators earn—in every particular?


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