We have probably all been in a conversation at one point or another where someone takes a jab at local government workers. Let’s face it, governments are usually easy targets, but in reality, much of what is poked fun at is simply not true. Here are three of the most common misconceptions about local government workers and the why they are simply not true.
Misconception #1: Local government workers have the easiest work schedules in the world.
I will never forget one of my most profound experiences working at LAGERS was during a visit at a small fire protection district in southern Missouri to meet with local fire fighters about their retirement benefits. During the meeting, I was honored to be given a tour of their firehouse; and when we reached the kitchen, something unexpected happened. The chief stopped and asked me if I would count the chairs at the dining table. It was a bit of an odd request, especially since the table didn’t seem like anything special to me. But still I counted and answered “18 chairs.” “That’s right,” he said, “and do you know why 18 is important?” I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. “It’s because we wanted to make sure that every firefighter had room at this table to have his or her family join them on holidays when they are on duty, even if it’s over a meal that’s gone cold because they were out on a call.”
I had never really given it much thought. I always get to spend Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter, and every other ‘family’ holiday at home with my husband and children, and what a luxury that truly is. Countless public workers spend long hours at their jobs when most of us are enjoying the comfort of being at home.
And as I reflect on that, it reminds me of another instance last summer in my small, rural community, when a sewage line broke and flooded several homes on the street where I own a home. While I was fortunate enough that my property wasn’t affected, it was an awful mess for the three homes that were, and not only was every public works employee in town there until the wee hours of the morning, but the mayor showed up too, and stood on the curb until 2 a.m. in his night coat with residences until arrangements were made for hotels and emergency cleanup crews arrived.
We all have stories like this, and even though it’s easy to take for granted, firefighters, police officers, hospital workers, public works crews, and other public servants of all shapes and sizes are there for us, no matter the hour of day or day of week.
Misconception #2: There are way too many local government workers.
The notion that local governments exponentially expand their workforce at the expense of local taxpayers is simply not the case, at least here in Missouri. In fact, over the past decade, the number of active LAGERS members has remained quite stable; somewhere around 33,000 local government workers. And when we talk about what is an appropriate number of employees, I think we must at the same time consider what level of service we, as taxpayers, expect from our local governments. When it snows, do I want to wait a few hours or a few days for the snow plow to clear my routes to work; when it storms and I lose power, do I expect my electricity to be resorted quickly; when I’m sick and need to go to the hospital or clinic, do I want to wait three hours to be seen, or do I expect a quick, competent diagnosis; if I were to experience a home invasion, do I want a 3 minute response time, or a 25 minute response time; if my home is on fire, do I want a handful of fresh-out-of-the-academy greenhorns, or a battalion of experienced, well-trained firefighters showing up at my doorstep. I’ll stop there, but the point is, a lot goes into training these very specialized, and skilled individuals who perform many of the most essential tasks within our communities. And while it may not snow or storm every day, or I may not need a doctor or a firefighter, or a police officer often; when I do need to call on a local government worker, I want to know that someone will always be there to answer my call.
It has been my experience when working with local governments here in Missouri that they are, in fact, very mindful of being responsible with their hiring decisions and budgets while at the same time finding the right balance of having well-staffed services for their citizens.
Misconception #3: Local government workers receive overly generous benefits, especially when it comes to retirement.
We have a joke we always make at our pre-retirement seminars when we talk about the spousal payout options. A spouse must have been married to a LAGERS member for at least two years to be eligible to be listed as a beneficiary; it’s to prevent someone from marrying you for your LAGERS benefit we always say, at which point the entire room laughs at the thought of anyone going to that much effort for such a small amount of money. The reality is, that the average benefit in LAGERS is somewhere around $1000 a month for a 20 year employee, hardly enough to retire on alone and certainly not overly generous. When it comes to LAGERS, there is no get rich quick scheme. Members have to work to earn their retirement benefit, the longer they serve their communities, the better their benefit will be at retirement. And the end of the day, even a long-tenured employee is most likely going to have to supplement his or her LAGERS benefit with individual savings to be able to maintain their current standard of living into retirement.
I have been honored to serve our local government workers here at LAGERS and hope that the next time you hear someone cracking a remark, you’ll help remind everyone of how important these amazing people are to our everyday lives.