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Are State and Local Government Workers Sharing the Pain of Job Cuts?

In proposing to increase state government workers’ payments for their pensions and health insurance (read: cut their pay) and gut their collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker described public employees as “the haves” and taxpayers as “the have-nots.” Are state employees really a privileged group of workers? The latest edition of Brookings’ MetroMonitor looks at whether state (and local) government workers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas were protected against the job losses that wracked the private sector during and after the Great Recession. 

For the top 100 metro areas as a whole, the answer is “no,” but both state and local government employment fell by a smaller percentage than total employment since the start of the recession. In all 100 metro areas combined, state government employment fell by 0.1 percent from the peak of total employment in those metro areas through the last quarter of 2010, local government employment fell by 1.4 percent, and total employment fell by 6.3 percent. 

As usual, the situation varies by metro area. State government employment fell since the beginning of the recession in 48 of the 100 metro areas, while local government fell in 60. Declines in state and local public sector employment were usually smaller, in percentage terms, than those in total employment. 

The 28 large metro areas containing state capitals were evenly split between those where the number of state government jobs fell (Albany, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boise, Columbia, Des Moines, Harrisburg, Honolulu, Minneapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Providence, Raleigh, and Richmond) and those where it rose (Albuquerque, Austin, Baton Rouge, Boston, Columbus, Denver, Hartford, Indianapolis, Jackson, Little Rock, Madison, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, and Salt Lake City). State government employment fell at a faster rate than total employment in only four of the large state-capital metro areas.

Overall, state and local government workers have felt the pain of job cuts, either directly through layoffs, or indirectly through attrition. (Job cuts via attrition typically force the remaining workers to do more work for the same pay.) The pain of job cuts was more widespread in the private sector. But the difference in the extent of job cuts between the public and private sectors may just be a matter of timing. Job cuts began sooner in the private sector than in the public sector and bottomed out sooner, too. And if impending state budget cuts result in a new round of state and local job cuts, then public workers could end up suffering at least as much as their private sector counterparts—not just in pay and benefits but in job losses as well.