For state workers, a special holiday come vote time

For state workers, a special holiday come vote time

Deciding to work on a holiday can yield big payouts for AFSCME members.

Once upon a time, Illinois state workers took better perks in exchange for lower pay.

Today is different. The perks remain, but Illinois state workers are now the highest-paid state workers in the nation after adjusting for cost of living. Most are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

One of those perks will fall on Tuesday.

That day, many Illinois voters will head to the polls during their lunch break, before work or after sunset. Some will have already cast their votes.

But on Election Day, AFSCME members have a full, paid holiday. Illinois is one of only 12 states to offer this benefit to state workers every two years, according to a 2016 report from the Council of State Governments.

Some Illinoisans might see this as a ploy to drive turnout for candidates who vow to keep the gravy train flowing for state employees. That very well could be. But a 2009 working paper from Princeton professor Henry Farber suggests it might not make much of a difference. He found no evidence that states providing an Election Day holiday for state employees significantly increased voter participation.

“I conclude that having an election holiday, by itself, is not an effective strategy to increase voter turnout,” Farber wrote.

A much better strategy to drive turnout among state workers might be to shower them with promises of pay and benefits that are way out of line with the private sector. That’s what Illinois politicians have done for decades. And that’s the real problem with an Election Day holiday solely for state workers: It’s just one of a plethora of privileges that ordinary private-sector taxpayers would be foolish expect in their own careers.

Just look at the holiday schedule in the state’s now-expired contract with AFSCME.

While the federal government provides 10 holidays, Illinois state workers get those plus Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, the day after Thanksgiving and Election Day. That’s 13 paid holidays, in addition to between 10 and 25 paid vacation days.

Deciding to work on a holiday can yield big payouts for AFSCME members, with holiday overtime pay ranging from double-time to double-time-and-a-half — in cash.

To be clear, nobody should be blaming state workers for reaping these benefits. But these benefits need to be brought in line with what the state can afford, and what workers who don’t take a government paycheck deem fair.

Holidays are just the tip of the iceberg.

AFSCME members can take more than 15 different types of leaves of absence. Many get overtime pay for anything beyond their 37.5-hour workweek. They can arrive late to work 10 times in a month without fear of discipline. They get platinum-level health care benefits at bronze-level prices. (Those plans aren’t even available on the state’s insurance exchange.) And don’t forget: free health insurance for life after retirement.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and AFSCME have been in gridlock over a new contract for months. But one week after Election Day, Illinoisans might see some movement.

On Nov. 15, the Illinois Labor Relations Board will consider whether Rauner and the union have reached impasse in negotiations. An impasse ruling would mean the governor is allowed to implement his last and best offer. Notably, that offer doesn’t touch AFSCME’s current holiday structure, leaves of absence or disciplinary procedures. It also adds performance bonuses and bereavement leave, letting state employees take off work to grieve the death of a loved one.

It does make AFSCME members pay more for their health insurance. Considering the massive premium hikes Illinoisans are seeing on the state’s insurance exchange, that seems like a reasonable request.

AFSCME may strike if it doesn’t like that deal.

Indeed, the union’s current demands suggest it’s operating in a different reality; one in which the state is flush with cash and the average private-sector worker has enjoyed rising paychecks and a booming economy.

AFSCME is still demanding pay hikes, better health care coverage and pension benefits in the new, four-year contract. Those demands would cost state taxpayers $3 billion more than what the state is offering, according to the governor’s office.

A paid holiday to go to the polls might not seem like a big deal. But it’s a symptom of a larger problem. AFSCME members belong to a special, protected class in Illinois. The other 99.9 percent of the state’s workforce? Not so much.

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