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Working In These Times

Monday, Aug 16, 2010, 3:00 pm

Rushing for the Exits: Public Employees Take Retirement Over Retrenchment

BY Richard Greenwald

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35,000 people rallied at the state capitol in Trenton, N.J. in May to protest Gov. Chris Christie's massive budget cuts, the same cuts that are pushing many public employees into retirement.   (Photo courtesy of New Jersey State AFL-CIO)

As the economy continues to stumble and state budgets (most many months late) have been slashed to the bone, state workers have rushed to the exits and taken early retirement or just plain retired while they could still lock in critical benefits. The message they seem to be sending to younger workers is get out while the gettin's good.

States have always looked at retirements as a win/win financially. Form a balance sheet perspective, early retirement removes higher paid workers and replaces them with both fewer and less paid workers, as not all retired workers are replaced one-for-one. Moreover, these new workers come in with lower benefit packages. In the end, the state reduces its payroll and gets more efficiencies as fewer workers do more with less. But what's lost might be greater than the short-term economic gains.

In New Jersey alone, almost 15,000 state workers put in their retirement papers at the end of last month, estimates are that it might reach 19,000 by year's end. Police and fire departments are seeing as much as 38% of their workers retire this year alone. Teachers are also leaving in droves, as 5,435 retired last month (twice as many as in previous years).

All these retirements mean that experienced public servants are leaving, jumping for the door really. We are losing some of the best teachers, police officers and fire fighters (just to name a few) across the nation and these careers seem less secure and valued as a result. With public employment under siege and devalued by its portrayal as a drain on the economy, how can we recruit and value the servants we need? We are indeed in a crisis, and not just in education.

When President John F. Kennedy asked the nation to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," he inspired a generation to public service. Many folks went into education, police and fire departments driven by the desire to help their communities and make the world better. Most sacrificed time and treasure (because we know that government work for most is not highly paid) for something larger. Through their unions they gained security and stability setting examples for future generations for long-term careers in public service. Now, as they push their way to the door what kind of ethos for public service is left?

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Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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