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READ: Public sector wages not keeping up with the high cost of paradise

April 19, 2016

On April 19, 2016, The Maui News ran an Op-Ed by HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira regarding wages in the public sector. The text of the Op-Ed appears below, or click here to read the piece online (The Maui News login required.)

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It's a given that those choosing a career in public service are not doing it for the money. For the vast majority, it is a steady job selected to help others, to do good for our neighbors, our county, city or state. In short, to dedicate one's life work to make a positive difference.

But perennially low salaries are leading to a talent drain from government work in a tight labor market where companies are now competing for the best (or any) workers. At the same time, costs such as housing, food and college tuition continue to increase quickly and the middle class workers' salaries can't keep up. The reality in Hawaii is even more extreme as we continually rank among the highest cost-of-living places to live and raise a family.

So what can be done? Yes, we need to grow our economy, to move toward more sustainable energy and more local crops. But in order to have a strong economy there must be a strong middle class.

On a policy level I challenge our state and county leaders to make strategic decisions to invest in the public workforce, to provide a living wage and a career ladder for those who choose government careers. We, as a state, give millions of dollars in tax breaks to bring business to the islands, we invest in high-profile events such as the Pro Bowl to keep those tourism dollars coming - but let's not forget about our local talent pool. Big business spends big bucks to lobby legislators on their behalf. As executive director of Hawaii's largest public worker union, I am lobbying for Hawaii's workers and their families.

Let's remember that government workers are the people who make Hawaii run - from clerical work, to keeping beaches safe, to inspecting restaurants and countless other services that we expect, count on and, frankly, take for granted as a society. We've seen the repercussions and added expenses when government services are cut. Many times it takes years after cuts are made before the damage shows up in a major way.

One noteworthy example is our state ramping up efforts to fight damaging invasive species such as little fire ants and the coconut rhinoceros beetle. These species should never have been allowed to infest our islands, but policy decisions that led to deep cuts at the Department of Agriculture during the Linda Lingle administration have now left state directors scrambling years later.

Having said that, it's time to take a hard look at the salaries that are in place for state and county workers, the services that are provided, and how we value those who perform these essential functions. When we look at and discuss fair wages and salaries for public workers we must not look at cost in a vacuum. How is government going to improve, to keep up with trends and technology, to become more efficient and provide better services if we can't attract and/or retain some of our best and brightest? To do this we must offer competitive salaries. I've seen many starting out who want to work in the public sector only to find that they can't afford to raise their families on a government salary. This is a shame, but we can do something about it.

In some sectors we are making progress. A recent binding-arbitration decision for ocean/water safety and state law enforcement officers provided repricing salary schedules that are a step in the right direction.

But other public sector workers and the employer who need to fill positions are suffering. At the Department of Education, 200 educational assistant positions need to be filled. With salaries averaging $2,600 a month, many who would like to take these positions are faced with the harsh reality that the position does not offer a living wage. Contrast that salary with the median home price on Maui of $595,000. And it's not just EAs - thousands more including those in positions such as clerks and office assistants are working for salaries that are just too low. It's time to take a look at the big picture. Government must be willing to pay a living wage that allows our local families to do more than just survive.

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