Defining a ‘public employee’

What exactly is a “public employee” and when and why did that get to such a negative thing to so many people?

In my youth, a so-called “Civil Service Job” was a real plum, something to be proud of. Many people I knew had parents that were in that category, and I never heard a single negative word directed toward them. Certainly, without public employees, the country doesn’t run. The country wouldn’t run at all levels either, not just the state or federal agencies.

Public employees plow our roads, keep our water clean and flowing, register our automobiles, send out all kinds of checks from VA Disability to Social Security. They answer questions for each and every situation in each and every department they’re employed by. Certainly, we couldn’t get by without them.

However, if you consider the definition of “public employee,” doesn’t that include teachers as well? Certainly it includes police and firemen, and I doubt the hardest of the hardcore public employee haters want to get rid of those folks.

How about the military? If a person joins the military, any branch, and chooses a line of work that is clearly a non-combatant occupation, why are they more revered than any other clerk in any other branch of government? Relative to pensions and benefits, no public employee has it better than the military or the police and firemen. So if that’s the issue, pensions and benefits, how do you separate all of the various public employees, one from the other, if all of them are doing necessary work? In my opinion, comparing a clerk in the Army to an Infantryman would be about the same as comparing a clerk in the DMV to a county sheriff. All are just people doing a job of their own choosing, albeit one clearly more dangerous than the other.

How about all of the staff currently working at VA hospitals and clinics? Aren’t they federal employees? Doesn’t that make them “public employees”, and if so, aren’t they overpaid and receiving too many benefits?

Certainly if they fall under the realm of federal employment, they’re receiving a great deal more money and benefits than people doing similar work at private hospitals. If one truly is against “public employees,” shouldn’t those VA employees be mentioned by those continually complaining about their tax dollars being wasted giving “Cadillac Benefits” to those often referred to as “feeding off the government trough”?

Getting back to a people in the military and civilian life that have almost identical duties and training, comparing benefits gets to be pretty enlightening. Most civil service employees at the county or state level need to work at least 30 years and be age 55 to retire. If they have 25 years most have to work until age 62. If they have 25 years, they’ll receive a retirement benefit of half pay. That would of course include a clerk.

Ah, but a clerk in the military with similar duties gets to retire at half pay with 20 years of service and no age limit. Retiring at say 38 years of age at half pay isn’t too bad a deal, is it? One might say, for a clerk, it’s an outrageously great deal, especially with other benefits tacked on to a military retirement, including an ability to go to school afterwards under the GI bill. Add 10 more years of service and that half pay grows to 75 percent and still only 48 years old! Not bad, not bad at all. I’m not complaining you understand, I’m trying to decipher the difference and the segregating of certain jobs of a similar function from the ongoing attacks on “public employees.”.

For all the talk of “public employee unions,” for some reason it seems to actually mean just certain unions. I’d say from my own experience the most powerful public union, at least in New York state, is that representing the police at almost any level. No other union has the absolute power of binding arbitration, a process that never seems to go the way of the municipality. This process is much more expensive than the Triborough Amendment yet never seems to be addressed by the “usual suspects.”

It’s routine to see various individuals constantly attacking the pay and benefits of teachers, the people responsible for educating your children and training them for adulthood, with no consideration at all for their educational requirements for the job. Yet an entry-level state trooper makes more money and a better retirement, and lots of chance for advancement. There’s no such thing as a sergeant or lieutenant teacher, you know.

I’m not picking on anyone, denigrating anyone’s choice of a career nor questioning anyone’s worth. What I am doing is questioning the reasons and criteria for those who do, and do so very regularly and very clearly in this very newspaper.

There are a few people locally who claim everything wrong with New York state and Chautauqua County is the fault of unions in general and public unions specifically, yet when you analyze their complaints they’re pretty selective as to whom they’re pointing the finger at. I mean, if taxes are the issue, and pay and benefits in particular being paid by those taxes, then how does one pick and choose? It might even be said that the more exceptions to the rule made by the complainers, the less validity to their arguments, and perhaps even reflecting negatively on the integrity of those complaining. It might even lead one to think perhaps the complaints, at least some of them, are just a bit personalized.

So, is it the issue of benefits and pay, or the issue of job specificity that’s causing the ruckus? Is it the pay and benefits a person gets for their work and the fact they come from tax dollars, or is it just certain specific jobs? That does change the argument a great deal, and requires a realignment of facts on the part of the constant complainers as to exactly what their issue really is.

Bear in mind, nobody has the deal that Congress and the Senate has for themselves; one term of office, and a lifetime retirement and medical care that covers their surviving spouses if they die. But that’s for another day, and another column.

Paul Christopher is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to