Launch Slideshow

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Looks better than it feels

Looks better than it feels

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    The bright side: public-sector benefits still better: Even though they've taken a hit, public benefits packages still provide more than those offered to private-industry workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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    Raise expectations up for second year: Do you expect your pay to increase, decrease, or stay the same within the next 12 months?Good news: The amount of survey respondents expecting pay cuts or freezes tapered off last year, and fell at least another percentage point this year. Even better news: the number of respondents who expect their salary to increase rose last year and then again this year. (Percentages are rounded up to the nearest whole number.) Source: PUBLIC WORKS

By Victoria K. Sicaras

Last year we predicted an end to the free-fall of public works jobs and paychecks, but warned that the climb back up won't begin for at least a couple of years.

We hate to say we told you so, but ...

The private sector is just starting the arduous climb back to profitability in the slow-recovering economy. In January, the U.S. Department of Labor reported:

  • 8.3% unemployment, the lowest national rate in nearly three years
  • 7,000 more architectural and engineering services jobs
  • Construction employment rose by 52,000, mainly among non-residential specialty trade contractors, in December and January.
  • Nonfarm employment increased an average of 152,000 jobs/month in 2011.

Meanwhile, the public sector lost 276,000 jobs in 2011, with declines at both the local and state levels.

Government budgets tend to lag economic conditions by 18 months to at least two years. That means you're facing now the financial challenges the private sector faced in early 2010, when business and industry were crawling out from under the biggest economic dive since the Great Depression. State and local budgets will continue to struggle for at least another year, say industry experts — and that's being optimistic.

You're (slightly) more optimistic

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When we deployed our seventh annual compensation survey in January and February, we hoped that — despite reports that public construction spending and local tax revenues are down — things are looking up and vacant positions are being filled. We were encouraged when more readers (almost 1,700) completed our questionnaire since the Great Recession began impacting the industry in 2008.

In a way, we were right.

This year's respondents are a tad more optimistic than in recent years. Perhaps that's because 42% got a raise in the last 12 months (compared to 33% of last year's participants) and the percentage that anticipates a raise (more than one-third) is slightly higher than in the past two years. In addition, the number of public works professionals who expect a pay cut dropped another percentage point.

But in many ways, we were too hopeful.

The improvements are so small that factoring in a standard ±3% margin of error may cancel any upward momentum. And perhaps this is an anomaly, but 8% of last year's respondents only expected a pay cut while 14% of this year's actually experienced one.

And as many of you who took the time to comment reminded us, salary increases won't weigh down your wallet when they're offset by higher out-of-pocket costs for that other key piece of the compensation picture: benefits.

Benefits aren't being cut (outright)

Like last year, most respondents — 71%, the highest percentage in three years — told us that their benefits aren't being cut. But many indicated these perks cost more than ever, a recurring theme.

“Dental and vision is offered at our expense; it is more costly than the benefits that it covers,” says a Midwestern county employee. “And our health insurance went from zero deductible to $2,000 on the family plan.”

About six out of every 10 respondents report that health insurance premiums have gone up in the past 12 months. Only 13% don't pay any premium at all, and 2% are paying premiums for the first time this year.

Given taxpayer resentment toward government in general and losses in private-sector retirement plans, public pensions are a particularly ripe target for perceived savings as cities, counties, and states try to balance their budgets.

Quite a few of you are being required to fund up to half your pension. In 2008, when cities, counties, and states had yet to feel the full force of the economic meltdown through drastically lower property, sales, and development-related revenues, 85% of respondents had access to a pension. Today, 76% do.

Other benefits that have been nickeled and dimed:

  • 401(k), 403(b), 457(k), or other savings plan. Available to 64% of respondents compared to 71% in 2008
  • Disability leave. 57%, down from 67%
  • Tuition reimbursement. 42%, down from 53%
  • Flexible scheduling/work hours or telecommuting. 20%, down from 44%
  • Monetary bonuses. 7%, down from 12%
But overall, you'll stay put

Almost half — 44% — of this year's respondents reported salary freezes last year and 57% expect their salaries to remain flat over the coming year. But despite complaints about the effect of things like unpaid furloughs on overall compensation, nearly half say their benefits are better than those of most U.S. workers and that they enjoy their jobs.

Furthermore, a third say they'll stay in their jobs because of the benefits. Finally, a little more than a third are just thankful to have a job in this economy.

These are good sentiments to hold onto as we climb out of the trough.

Benefits available to newcomers

According to our most recent Salary & Benefits survey, someone who's beginning their career this year at a city, county, special district, township, or state can expect:

  • Paid holidays (96% of respondents are offered this option by employers)
  • Paid vacation days (96%)
  • Health insurance/benefits (94%)
  • Sick leave (90%)
  • Most also receive:

  • Dental insurance (80%)
  • Life insurance (76%)
  • Pension plan (76%)

But while more than half are offered ... :

  • 401(k), 403(b), 457(k), or other savings plan (64%)
  • Paid training — CEUs/PDHs, other (60%)
  • Flexible spending accounts (59%)
  • Vision insurance (59%)
  • Disability leave (57%)
  • Accidental death & dismemberment (AD&D) insurance (56%)
  • Paid professional registration/association memberships (56%)
  • Cell or other phone allowance (54%)

... Less than half will be offered:

  • Tuition reimbursement (42%)
  • Compensation time (33%)
  • Retiree health insurance (33%)
  • Company car or car allowance (31%)
  • Overtime pay (23%)
  • Fitness room onsite or support toward private fitness club (21%)
  • Training/certification incentives (21%)
  • Flexible scheduling/work hours or telecommuting (20%)
  • Monetary bonuses (7%)

Percentages are rounded up to whole numbers.

Source: PUBLIC WORKS


How does your salary compare?

This region-by-region analysis compares median salaries of survey respondents by population served. You can find median salaries by title or by title and department/area of work. Note: Not all titles, departments, etc. are represented due to lack of survey respondents from those areas.

EPA Region 1: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
ME, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI

EPA Region 2: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
NY, NJ, PR, VI

EPA Region 3: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
PA, WV, DE, MD, DC, VA

EPA Region 4: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
KY, TN, MS, AL, GA, SC, NC, FL

EPA Region 5: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
MN, WI, IL, MI, IN, OH

EPA Region 6: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
NM, TX, OK, AR, LA

EPA Region 7: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
NE, IA, KS, MO

EPA Region 8: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
MT, ND, SD, WY, UT, CO

EPA Region 9: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
CA, NV, AZ

EPA Region 10: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department
AK, WA, OR, ID

Canada: Salaries by Title / Salaries by Title/Department