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October 25, 2021

Most Local Public Employees Are Paid Too Little to Reasonably Support a Family; Collective Bargaining Would Reduce Pay Disparities and Improve Services

New reports provide local and regional data for 2 cities in Hampton Roads

With the recent lifting of a ban on local governments allowing collective bargaining, municipal and county workers across Virginia have started aWith the recent lifting of a ban on local governments allowing collective bargaining, municipal and county workers across Virginia have started advocating for their local governments to recognize this right. Last week, Fairfax County passed an ordinance allowing their workers to collectively bargain on pay and working conditions. Working people in two Hampton Roads cities are also seeking that recognition. Public employees in Virginia Beach and Newport News are often paid too little to achieve economic security for a family living in the city where they work, according to new analyses by The Commonwealth Institute, a policy research and advocacy organization. These reports provide insight into current pay for public employees, total compensation for Virginia local government employees compared to their private-sector peers, and how collective bargaining helps close pay disparities.

“Public-sector workers are often the backbone of a community,” says Briana Jones,  Research Assistant at The Commonwealth Institute and one of the report authors. “Collective bargaining can help these vital members of the community better advocate for themselves and the community they serve.”

Public-sector workers are often the backbone of a community. Collective bargaining can help these vital members of the community better advocate for themselves and the community they serve.

Briana Jones,  Research Assistant, The Commonwealth Institute

The reports include new analyses of public employee salaries in Virginia Beach and Newport News compared to the cost of living in the cities. Key new findings include:

  • Nine in 10 public employees likely couldn’t afford to support a family at a modest yet adequate standard of living in Virginia Beach on what they are paid.
  • Five in 6 full-time Newport News city employees likely couldn’t afford to support a family at a modest yet adequate standard of living on what they are paid.
  • Many public employees in both localities could not afford to support just themselves at a modest yet adequate standard of living in the communities they serve.

“I have to work lots of overtime on our low wages. If we made better pay, I wouldn’t have to be away from my family every other weekend just to make ends meet,” says Derrick Holley, a Motor Equipment Operator in Virginia Beach’s Department of Public Works, who is quoted in the report. “Cost of living is steady going up and our wages are not. We deserve better wages. With a union we would have collective bargaining to help raise everyone’s wages.”

I have to work lots of overtime on our low wages. If we made better pay, I wouldn’t have to be away from my family every other weekend just to make ends meet. Cost of living is steady going up and our wages are not. We deserve better wages. With a union we would have collective bargaining to help raise everyone’s wages.

Derrick Holley, Motor Equipment Operator in Virginia Beach’s Department of Public Works

In addition to the new findings, the report includes key findings from other recent research:

  • Local government public employees in Virginia are typically paid 29.9% less than their private-sector peers with similar levels of education, age, and hours worked, one of the largest pay penalties in the country (Economic Policy Institute, June 2021).
  • Public sector collective bargaining tends to reduce (while not fully eliminating) the pay penalty for public employees compared to their private-sector peers, boosting pay by 5%-8% (Brunner and Ju, ILR Review, March 2019).
  • The fair and clear standards provided by unionization particularly help Black and Latino workers (Economic Policy Institute, August 2020). Women, who make up the majority of local government workers (especially in Virginia), would also particularly benefit from collective bargaining (Economic Policy Institute, June 2021).

“Since Black workers and women are also disadvantaged in the broader labor market, strengthening collective bargaining rights for local government workers should reduce racial and gender inequality in the labor force and potentially attract Hispanics and other underrepresented groups to public-sector jobs,” said Monique Morrissey in the release for the June 2021 Economic Policy Institute report, which can be found at https://www.epi.org/press/collective-bargaining-rights-help-narrow-the-pay-gap-for-local-government-workers/.

Sherri Egerton

sherri@thecommonwealthinstitute.org

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