Pay analysis finds state outstrips private sector for less-specialized jobs

Looking for a high-paying secretarial job? Your best bet would be state government. How about a university teaching post? Try the private sector.

A new report from state legislative researchers shows government salaries tend to outstrip the private sector when less training or education is required, and swings the other way for highly specialized posts.

The Office of Legislative Research analysis, posted this week in response to legislative inquiries, came on the heels of statements from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that overall state spending on employee compensation and benefits is not sustainable in Connecticut’s struggling economy.

Using median wage data supplied by the state Department of Labor, the OLR report analyzed 16 occupations covering office and clerical work, health care, legal practice, and  higher education.

The report found most clerical posts, including typists, clerks and secretaries, earn between $1,800 and $17,200 more per year working for the state. The one exception involved legal secretaries, with private-sector annual pay running $10,500 ahead.

Union officials, not surprisingly, said the higher pay for state workers is warranted.

Larry Dorman, a spokesman for the union representing roughly 5,000 state clerical workers, said staffers at key human service state agencies such as the departments of Social Services or Mental Health & Addiction Services play a much larger role than most office workers in the private sector.

“These people have regular interaction with clients,” said Dorman, spokesman for Council 4 of the American, Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, adding they must develop a broad understanding of social service and medical programs to help clients find the right solution to their problems. “They are literally on the front lines to make these programs work.”

Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for the state’s largest health care workers’ union, lodged a similar criticism about findings that personal, home care and nursing aides can earn $15,000 to $19,000 more per year in government service.

“I don’t find it a particularly useful comparison,” she said, adding that most public-sector health care jobs come with added certification and educational requirements not found in private work.

But Sen. Tony Guglielmo of Stafford, ranking Republican senator on the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, said state government can’t afford not to reassess all of its compensation levels given the $3.7 billion deficit built into the fiscal year that begins July 1.

State employees salaries and benefits comprise about 30 percent of this year’s $19.01 billion budget, while the projected deficit legislators and Malloy must close equals nearly 20 percent of current spending.

“Obviously you can’t ignore something that’s as big of a part of the budget as that,” Guglielmo said.

Malloy publicly warned state employees for the first time on Feb. 2 that they would be asked to provide wage and benefit concessions to help close the deficit, adding that he believes compensation levels are not sustainable at this time.

“Have we opened up lines of communication? The answer is yes,” Malloy said at that time. “Will our budget assume a level of success in that regard? The answer is yes.”

The governor has not disclosed what savings target he will build into the budget he will propose to the legislature on Wednesday.

Guglielmo said he doesn’t believe the approach to concessions should be focused on specific state job-holders with a big compensation edge over the private sector. Similarly, state government can’t afford to bolster compensation right now for those government workers who could earn more in the private sector.

According to the OLR report, professors can earn $7,900 to $23,900 more per year in private academia than they can at state colleges and universities.

The analysis also compared the annual salary for the commissioner of the Department of Social Services, just under $167,000, with the top compensation packages for chief executive officers at three major Connecticut health insurance firms. Not surprisingly, the CEOs for Cigna United Health group and Aetna earn between $6.4 million to $17.9 million more than they would as DSS commissioner.

But Guglielmo said Connecticut would benefit from developing a long-term approach to achieve a more competitive salary structure, even if it doesn’t reap the benefits until a decade from now.

“You’re not going to turn that aircraft carrier around in two years, or even four years,” he said, but added that a redesigned salary structure could preserve jobs in the long haul. “The real problem we have here is that there is no more money. You could lay off a lot of people, but who wants to do that?”

Dorman responded, though, that state officials would be better off trying to find ways to bolster the earnings of private-sector, working families than in reducing pay for state employees. “That’s not going to create a single job or generate any long-term economic recovery for the middle class,” he said.