Friday, February 26, 2010

A word about furloughs

Lots of stuff in the news about layoffs and furloughs, most recently where Milwaukee's county board formally signed off on adding another 10 days of furlough for many unionized county workers, bringing the total to 22 for all of 2010. In previous jobs I've had as well as academic work, I've examined the efficacy of balancing whether to reduce salary expenses through reducing positions (layoffs) or keeping the positions are reducing paid days of work (furloughs).

Outside of the political questions that arise with these choices, the decision on which direction to choose comes down to three big variables: 1. How necessary is the job that is being performed (essential, optional, or excess) 2. How many people are required to perform the duty at the desired level of service? 3. What are the benefit costs to keeping employees? For example, if number 3 is a high number, maybe it makes layoffs the more likely choice (due to the current and future benefit costs being cut by job losses). But if the answer to No. 1 is "absolutely essential" and No. 2 is "the amount that is currently working" (or, as in the case of many government agencies. "more than you currently have."), then the answer is more likely to be to impose furloughs.

As the article notes, furloughs create a major problem for operations at a place like the Milwaukee County Zoo, which is open every day of the year with an inelastic need for care of animals. Reducing the number of people available for this means that some areas have to be closed at various times, as the manpower is not there for needed cleanings and supervision of animals. If this is an unacceptable outcome for running a zoo, you probably don't want to do furloughs, and find some place or way to reduce expenses.

But Milwaukee County's case makes no sense. The County is now giving 22 unpaid days off to many of its workers, which accounts for almost 8% of 5 days of work a week throughout the year (approximately 260). Now to those 22 days, add another 7 or 8 for holidays and an average iof 12 for vacation, and you're past 40 days of work that each employee is not actually performing his or her job- 15% of their days at work. This means that for every 7 workers in each of these units, the County does not get the equivalent services of 1 of these workers for the entire year.

Instead of cutting every worker by the 8% of reduction that the furloughs result in, why not just cut 4 or 5% of the workers in those areas? This would probably get you the same monetary savings when you combine salary and benefit costs (remember, benefit amounts DO NOT CHANGE with furloughs- those workers still get what's coming to them), and you don't have the long-term costs that go into providing retirement and medical benefits for these workers in the future.

From a pure money standpoint, there is only 1 reason you do not make those cuts- because the furloughed workers are needed, and the needed services break down by reducing staff (and/or revenue), to a point that it is well beyond the reduced costs and workers. And that is the hidden thing the privatization freaks don't want to bring up. That clearly these workers perform a valuable, needed service at a reasonable price, or else smart economics would say they should just be laid off or have the services sold off to an taxpayer-unaccountable bidder.

The fact that Scott Walker and co. don't do this, or are relatively unsuccessful in selling things off without having increased taxpayer costs or unacceptable levels of service, tells you that they don't believe their rhetoric that "the public sector doesn't work." It clearly does work, and the reductions given to County employees is done as a short-term, vegeneful way to get retribution on people they don't like- folks who do things that Gordon Gekko wouldn't go into business for. And it certainly does nothing to solve the long-term problems that continue to multiply with the broken county budget.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Healthy reality check

Just in time for today's health care summit, I wanted to relay the story of my friends Steve and Tracy. They are a brilliant couple with extensive backgrounds in IT-related jobs, and would be well worth to have on most companies' payrolls. Steve has had debilitating back pain for several years (at the ripe old age of 35), and it had degenerated to the point that he could not work, and required spinal fusion surgery. Sad and unfair enough, but nothing compared to their treatement by our health care system.

See, Steve's condition left him basically uninsurable either through his former job or Tracy's. They don't have kids, so BadgerCare Plus or any similar subsidiary doesn't help them, and Medicaid won't cover an "optional" surgery like spinal fusion, despite the fact that Steve's back was keeping him from leading any sort of decent lifestyle or contributing any significant amount of work. So, in order to allow Steve to live anythng resembling a normal life, they checked the Internet listings and decided to go ahead with the spinal fusion one of the only places they could remotely get it- Malaysia.

The trip required almost full-day plane trips in Steve's debilitated condition, but they finally got halfway around the globe in absurd conditions, and were able to have the surgery, which has greatly relieved Steve's back pain. However, all of the reclining positions exacerbated blood issues Steve had from the compressed pain, and led to blood clots in his leg and groin, which knocked him back another week in Malaysia. A few weeks after the surgery, Steve's leg is still swollen from the clots, and he struggles to walk around as a result.

They took one more all-day trip back to the States, and are presently back in Verona, but Steve is still far from OK, due to the clots and recovery time. They took him to a doctor this week to draw blood, and he promptly passed out from the bodily stress. Tracy estimates the total out-of-pocket for this ordeal at nearly $55,000, and they are not finished yet. I went over to their place to drop off some supplies for one of their friends, and noticed a "for sale" sign outside of the home, and I don't think they were planning to relocate out of town. I'm not going to ask them if it's related to the medical bills, but it's not like they're loaded with money, and you can't help but believe it's related.

Now think about this in terms of our current health care situation. There is an estimated eight health care lobbyists for every member of Congress at an estimated 2009 price tag of $1.2 billion. That's $1.2 billion that could have gone toward medical breakthroughs, expanded coverage, or lower premiums for consumers. Explain to me how guaranteeing Well Point's board of directors their 8-figure salaries over covering our people is something remotely productive for our economy?

How has our health care system helped Steve and Tracy? How has pricing them out of the market and preventing them from getting the coverage and treatment they deserve helped our economy in any way? Isn't it better to have people healed and working instead of being 1. infirmed at home and/or 2. indebted due to the foreign travels they've had to make to.

The health care companies and the insurance whores in Congress get to get paid at the expense of people like Steve and Tracy every day. I'm getting very close to stepping up, and making the execs and other scumbags find out just how good their medical coverage really is. Making them feel the pain may be the only way they do anything to lessen ours, and get our economy off the disastrous track that our country's unregulated health insurance leads to.

I'd like to go into things further, but it sickens me too much. RECONCILE THIS BILL NOW, single-payer health care as soon as possible, and cut the costs for all other groups of real people in the process (heck, it'll also cut your property taxes at the local level. Government worker medical care and low-income Medicaid comes from somewhere, doesn't it?). This is real life with real problems, and I' very tempted to make anyone who tries to lie about the way things really are have to get some health care of their own.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Government is not an IPOD

You knew this was coming. Scott Walker's low-tax "leadership" leads to an attempt to give mid-year paycuts to County employees under contract.

Read some of the comments below. You can spot the clueless ones when they start saying "In tough times, all parties should tighten their belts, just like the private sector." The problem with that thinking is that government services do NOT have lower demand when the economy suffers, because people still use the parks, people still need law enforcement on the street, and there is an added amount of people in need of financial assistance due to higher unemployment and lower wages. In the private sector, expenses and hiring occurs when demand for a product is high, why isn't it the same for the public sector if they should treated the same...RIGHT?

Of course, that last part is in jest, as people don't like to see taxes go up when they're struggling, but it proves the flaw in the "run it like a business" argument. Government is NOT a business. It delivers services that might not be cost-effective to improve the choices available to citizens, and improve the chances of businesses succeeding. It delivers services like education to children, health care, food stamps, green space, and transportation that private operators would never offer due to cost-effectiveness reasons, but are requirements for a functioning society and any sort of improving quality of life. And government has an extra layer of accountability to the taxpayer that profit-driven corporations will never have, and therefore requires that its provision of services be looked after in a closer manner, and operated more responsibly than their private sector counterparts.

There's no question Milwaukee County workers have some benefits that are out of whack with what many people get in their jobs. But they also give up some of the pay that would come with it, and do thankless jobs like social work that the majority people are too unqualified and uninterested in doing, but are requirements for the world we live in. Walker could have shown legitimate leadership by negotiating in good faith, and offered items such as required contributions to employee pensions and lowered benefits in the future (or an encouragement of early retirement).

This is what Tom Barrett did in the City of Milwaukee for the 2010 budget (I know, I was there), and got the needed concessions out of most City workers with fewer furlough days, and no major holes in the budget deficit. Now, the City still has structural issues in its budget, but they were lessened in this latest round of negotiations, because THE MAYOR'S OFFICE DECIDED TO NEGOTIATE AND GOT SOME OF WHAT THEY WANTED. Walker has decided to score political points with suburb boys instead of work with the unions, and the County workers have rightfully told him to shove it. The Milw. County union's act is no different than corporations shopping their facilities to local communities, trying to score any tax break they can at the expense of everyone else in that town. Strangely, angry white man radio ignores those people who work for the best deal, I suppose because they have money and white collars, while dumping on people who perform real work and have blue collars that are trying to do the same thing.

I agree that unions have to understand they can't have it all, just like corporates should. But demonizing your workers and trying to play games with their jobs is not the way to get anything done as an employer, and a very telling sign of the type of disaster someone like Walker would be as the head of a McDonald's (if he ever had a private sector job), and he's worse of being head of something we DO need, like government services.