SALEM — Supporters of a new initiative petition want to amend the state’s constitution to require that public employees receive roughly the same pay and benefits as private sector workers in similar jobs.
They claim public employees receive greater total compensation — including retirement, health benefits and leave — than many private sector workers.
The chief petitioners on the measure are Kim Sordyl, an education activist, and Erica Hetfeld, the executive director of Priority Oregon, a self-styled government watchdog group.
Priority Oregon, a 501(c)4 nonprofit formed in early 2017, has been in the headlines before for producing ads critical of Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat up for reelection this year.
The group contended Tuesday, in announcing an initiative petition that could put the issue before voters in 2020, that current compensation packages prevent limited state resources from going to “classrooms and other essential services.”
The petition would change the state’s constitution to require public employee compensation to be between 95 to 105 percent of compensation for comparable jobs in the private sector.
In cases where a job — such as a police officer — doesn’t have a suitable equivalent in the private sector, the amendment would direct the state to set compensation based on similar jobs in neighboring states.
The initiative petition comes weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employee unions couldn’t require non-members to pay fees to cover collective bargaining costs.
The outcome of the case, Janus v. AFSCME, is likely to diminish the financial and political power of public sector unions.
Hetfeld said the petition was not influenced by the Janus decision.
“If Gov. Brown isn’t going to take the appropriate steps to make government employee compensation equal to that of similar jobs in the private sector, the people should decide that issue,” Hetfeld said.
Detractors, including some of the state’s largest public employee unions, expressed skepticism about the petition Tuesday.
“This does not appear to be well thought out,” said John Larson, a Hermiston teacher and president of the Oregon Education Association, in a prepared statement. “When considering education and experience, professional educators already earn 20 percent less than the private sector...if you followed (Priority) Oregon’s logic, you would actually see dramatic increases in pay for educators across the state.”
(Priority Oregon, as Larson acknowledged elsewhere in his statement, is targeting not only wages, but benefits and other compensation such as paid leave).
Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU 503, dismissed Priority Oregon’s efforts Tuesday as an attempt to stir up publicity ahead of this year’s election.
Brown’s main rival in her reelection bid is State Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, whose platform includes pension and spending reforms.
“This is not about 2020,” Unger said. “This is about 2018, and making teachers and firefighters and so many other people the enemy during the election cycle.”
The state, cities, counties and school districts continue to struggle with escalating public pension costs, a dilemma that prompted Brown to convene a task force to find ways to reduce the unfunded liability of the pension system last year.
Petition supporters touched on that problem as well.
“The average Oregon government employee receives benefits that most people can only dream about and it’s draining money from our schools,” Sordyl said in a prepared statement.
Meanwhile, state government is facing a wave of impending retirements, which are poised to create succession planning and recruiting challenges, particularly in a strong economy with a historically low unemployment rate, top officials say.
That’s all the more reason to offer competitive benefits packages, union supporters contend.
“Any further reductions in educator compensation and benefits at the current salary levels would make it extremely difficult to attract and retain the most talented teachers and other educators at a time when school districts across Oregon are already struggling to fill a variety of important positions,” Larson said in a written response to questions from the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau. “If that were the case, it would cause significant harm to the classroom learning of students across Oregon.”
In April 2017, as part of a package of cost containment measures, Brown signed an executive order requiring the state Department of Administrative Services conduct a market study of the state’s employers every even-numbered year and to use that information in collective bargaining.
In late 2016, a market study by DAS found that the state’s compensation structure — including salary and “major benefits” — for 509 executive branch job classifications was 103.35 percent of the market.