Austin Berg, Illinois Policy Institute Jul. 12, 2016, 10:00am


George works for the state of Illinois. He has a clerical job. Nothing fancy. 

But it pays the bills. 

Berg
Berg

On Monday, July 4, George volunteers to work. Holiday be damned. George works his seven-and-a-half-hour shift and gets double his regular pay in cash. Not bad. 

After work, George has friends over for a barbecue. George watches fireworks light up the night sky. 

Tuesday morning, George doesn’t feel much like working. He decides to stay in bed. This is only the eighth time George has done this in the last month, so he receives a warning. Next time he’ll get a warning, too. And the time after that. 

For his 11th unauthorized absence, George will get a five-day suspension. 

But for now, there is nothing to worry about. George stays in bed. 

On Wednesday, George has trouble showing up to work on time. He arrives almost an hour late. Luckily, his contract with the state says there “should be no general policy of docking for late arrival.” George gets paid for his tardiness. 

George falls behind on his work. The world didn’t stop moving when he wasn’t at his desk, after all. To finish his tasks for the day George works until 5:30 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. George gets overtime pay for this hour, since it falls outside his regular schedule. 

If George’s work environment sounds absurd, congratulations, you’ve held a normal job at some point. 

But blaming George won’t solve anything. He didn’t create those perks. 

Rather, they are the byproduct of weak Illinois governors who have kowtowed to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees over the years. 

Beyond the perks, that weakness has made Illinois state workers the highest-paid state workers in the nation, after adjusting for cost of living. That weakness has gifted AFSCME workers with platinum-level health care coverage at bronze-level prices, and free health insurance for life after retirement. 

Even recipients of those perks should recognize they’re unsustainable. 

And yet, AFSCME is demanding pay hikes, better health care coverage and pension benefits over a new, four-year contract, which would cost state taxpayers $3 billion more than what the state is offering. 

One man is standing in the way. 

For the last year, Gov. Bruce Rauner hasn’t flinched in his negotiations with AFSCME. Talks are currently deadlocked until the Illinois Labor Relations Board rules on whether an impasse exists between Rauner and the union. 

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan tried to grant AFSCME’s wishes by taking Rauner out of negotiations through a union-arbitration bill, but failed.

State lawmakers justify keeping in lockstep with AFSCME by saying they’re fighting for the middle class. But middle-class Illinoisans who don’t work for the government are struggling to stay afloat amid flatlining incomes and a stagnant economy. 

And raising Illinois’ income tax to pay for the growing cost of state government, as Madigan and others have proposed, fires a direct hit at middle-class budgets. Under the now-expired contract, Illinoisans paid $15,000 a year per AFSCME worker in health care costs alone. 

Nowhere was the dichotomy between Madigan’s “middle class” and Illinois’ middle class at large more evident than at a May 18 AFSCME rally in Springfield. It was there that a man with statewide approval ratings in the low teens was met with thunderous applause as he pumped his fist skyward. 

Perhaps George was in the crowd that day, cheering for Madigan. 

George has worked for the state for 10 years. He’s a fairly healthy guy, only using six of his 12 paid sick days each year. But come Thursday, George isn’t feeling quite right. 

Thankfully, George is allowed to stash away every paid sick day he doesn’t use. He has 60 stored up, and uses one to recover. Now he has 59. Until next month, that is. Then he’ll be back up to 60. 

On Friday, George takes a paid personal day. Only two more left for the year. 

On his day off, George mulls over his options for a lengthier leave of absence. His contract includes more than 15 different types of work leave. Most of those options would continue to push him up the ladder of seniority while he’s gone. 

That sounded like a pretty good deal to George. 

He takes the weekend to think on it.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org. 

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