TRENTON — With her family seated around a small kitchen table in her Newark apartment, Marlene Witter scoops chunks of salmon baked with cabbage and carrots out of a plastic bowl she uses as a serving dish, the dinner she whipped up for her four children after getting home from work.
As everyone — including the youngest, 10-month-old Arrionah — holds hands, Aminah, 11, says the prayer: “Thank you God for the food you have gave and the clothes on our backs. Amen.”
Witter, 39, a single mother, works as a nurse’s assistant at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. In addition to paying for day care and rent, she’s helping her son Ronald, 19, attend culinary school, and daughter Felicia, 21, pursue a nursing degree.
A full-time state worker, Witter does it on a $43,578.41 a year salary. She is one of 17,775 full-time state employees making less than $45,000 a year, according to a Star-Ledger analysis of the 2010 state payroll.
“I would love for (Gov. Chris Christie) to live off that salary,” said Witter. “The working families are the ones who are losing.”
Christie has made state employee pay and benefits one of Trenton’s hottest topics as the contracts for 50,000 unionized workers are set to expire in June. Saying the state can’t afford the cost anymore, the governor wants state employees to kick in more for their health insurance and pensions and says those in contract talks shouldn’t get any pay hikes. He sometimes calls their unions greedy.
But while politicians debating the issue use broad strokes and general terms in describing the state worker, The Star-Ledger analysis reveals a diverse workforce that includes a wide range of jobs, levels of education — and compensation.
The analysis shows the median state worker salary — the point where half make more and half make less — was $62,267 last year for the 83,542 union and nonunion employees in the three branches of state government.
On its face, that would mean a “typical” state worker is paid less in New Jersey than the median salary for a municipal police officer, who makes $90,672, but more than the median salary for a teacher, who makes $57,467.
But state employees are everything from clerks, secretaries and child-protection caseworkers to doctors in state hospitals, judges and the governor himself. There are 2,210 state workers who didn’t complete high school — as well as 2,868 with law degrees. Thousands make handsome salaries — and thousands more are at or below what’s considered middle class in New Jersey.
That means any one-size-fits-all solution to cut the cost of state workers would not spread the pain equally. The newspaper’s analysis shows Christie’s plan for all workers to pay about a third of their health care premiums would translate to a 10 percent pay cut for lower-earning workers like Witter, while the governor and others in his salary range would lose only about 1 percent.
The review also found:
• The median salary for those in unions was $59,639.39. It was $99,154.01 for those not represented by unions — including judges, prosecutors and top managers.
• There were 25,302 employees whose salaries are set below $50,000, and 6,026 who make $100,000 or more.
• 273 made more than the governor’s $175,000 salary.
• The lowest-paid full-time state worker, a food services worker in the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, makes $24,960.16. The highest-paid, the medical director in the Department of Human Services, has a salary of $216,924. The review does not cover state colleges and authorities.
Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the Communications Workers of America, the largest state workers union, said the analysis shows state workers are “not super overpaid, our benefits are not remarkable. Our working conditions are pretty tough and our members are incredibly devoted and committed people.”
Administration officials responding to the analysis, however, stressed benefits can inflate the actual cost of the “average” state worker to nearly $90,000.
Christie, who would not comment for this report, tells town hall audiences that state employees don’t pay their fair share in benefits. In addition to his health care proposal, the governor wants all state workers to pay 8.5 percent of their salary into the pension system. Most now contribute 5.5 percent.
“What they’re getting doesn’t come close to what they’re paying,” Christie said recently in Woodbridge.
PUBLIC VERSUS PRIVATE
In his town halls, the Republican governor also mentions how those in the private sector aren’t doing as well as those in the state work force.
Bob Hudak knows both worlds: He left the private sector after a decade working in business, jumping to a job as a case worker for the Division of Developmental Disabilities, where he helps disabled people develop long-term care plans.
While returning to the private sector might mean more money than his $55,381.81 a year salary, Hudak, who has a degree in business, wouldn’t trade jobs again.
“I’m not going back. I enjoy what I do,” Hudak, 51, of Clark, said. “Nobody goes into this field to get rich.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the average annual salary for full-time workers in New Jersey at $50,000. The U.S. Census Bureau pegged the median household income for the state at $68,981.
Do private-sector workers make more than state workers? It depends on what jobs they hold, according to Rutgers University human resources professor Charles Fay, whose research focuses on compensation.
The lowest-paid workers, like laborers, clerks and secretaries, tend to do better in the public sector, Fay said. Two New Jersey unions representing about 15,000 of those workers each have median salaries of about $45,000. U.S. Department of labor statistics show a midlevel secretary for the state makes about $20,000 more than the $35,980 average pay for a secretary in New Jersey’s private sector.
Those in professional positions, like doctors and lawyers, on average get paid less than those in the private sector, Fay said. The state’s 689 deputy attorneys general make an average of $84,251, well below New Jersey’s $125,560 average for a private lawyer, including those who make far more than Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner’s $192,795.
The governor’s office points to the “fringe benefits” as the biggest difference between public and private employees.
State employees in their first year get 28 days off: 13 holidays, 12 vacation days and three personal days. After five years they get 31 days off; it’s 41 days after 20 years.
The state pays an average of $13,403 a year for health coverage, according to state Treasury officials. Currently, state employees pay 1.5 percent of their salary toward health benefits, regardless of the cost of the plan.
Most workers opt for the most comprehensive plan, which Christie says means taxpayers are footing most of the bill.
If the state makes a full pension payment (which it hasn’t in a decade), it would add another $10,769 per employee. All that pushes the average employee compensation to nearly $90,000 a year, Treasury officials say.
The cost of the pension system, which requires payouts for the employee’s life, is the biggest difference between the public and private sectors, Fay said. He noted pensions, or defined benefits, have largely been abandoned in the private sector.
Based on salary, pension payments are particularly costly when they go to those who retire early, like police officers. Two unions representing 6,000 state corrections officers and 1,700 rank-and-file troopers each have median salaries exceeding $69,000.
“The State Police and a bunch of people can retire at age 50, and then they’re on that defined benefit forever,” Fay said.
COST OF CHANGES
Hudak, whose wife, Susan, is a teacher’s assistant, knows that if changes in health insurance contributions come, he’s going to have to swallow them. He said most of his co-workers realize the current system isn’t sustainable.
“We realize what kind of state the state is in fiscally,” Hudak said. “Most people are realistic.”
It’s the degree of change, especially for the lowest-paid employees, that worries Hudak.
Christie wants state employees to pay 30 percent of the cost of their health coverage. He calls it a matter of fairness to taxpayers, saying most are paying more in the private sector while also bearing the cost of state employees’ insurance.
Christie’s proposal would have the most drastic effect on the wallets of those making the least money.
For example, Christie, who makes $175,000 a year as governor, pays roughly $2,600 for health care. Witter, who makes $43,578 a year, pays about $600.
Under the governor’s plan, Christie and Witter would each pay one-third of the cost of their health plans. For the cheapest plan, which costs $14,985.60, each would pay $4,495.68. That translates into a much smaller reduction, percentage-wise, in take-home pay for Christie than for Witter. In Witter’s case, she would face an approximately 8.85 percent drop in her pay.
When factoring in the pension proposal, someone making the same as Christie (who does not qualify for a pension) takes a 4.38 percent pay cut, while Witter gets a 12.71 percent pay cut.
The average state employee would pay $3,561.67 more for health insurance for a family, a 6.15 percent drop in pay; that grows to 9.38 percent pay reduction if the pension proposal is added.
While the state currently offers three health care plans, Treasury officials say it would also offer cheaper options those like Witter would be able to select. The state is also looking at plans known as “calamity coverage,” which don’t cover most basic preventive care, but do cover accidents or serious illness when bills become excessive.
The Christie plan is based on a federal model, officials said, which offers hundreds of plans to participants and requires them to pay 34 percent of the cost of the selected coverage.
Rutgers University Labor professor Jeff Keefe said the average payment for health insurance for New Jersey private-sector workers is 22 percent. He said the 30 percent being pushed by Christie is a national average, not reflective of the state’s own culture.
“When you use a national average, you’re picking up real different cultural and economic differences we have in the United States,” Keefe said.
Witter isn’t sure what she would do if Christie’s health proposals go into effect. She expects she would continue to pay for her insurance because she has young children, but the loss of $320 a month would be very difficult for her.
Christie, at town hall meetings, has often made the point that his proposals aren’t meant to hurt workers but to protect their pensions in the long term.
From the union’s perspective, the pension system hasn’t cost the state much of anything in the past decade because governors have not made full contributions to it, the CWA’s Rosenstein said.
Christie, who skipped a $3 billion payment last year, is bound by a law he signed to make a payment in the next budget. He has said he’ll make the payment early, but only if lawmakers pass his proposal to make employees pay more into the system.
The governor frequently compares his efforts to reform pensions with being the guy left at dinner to pick up the tab after everyone else leaves.
“Even if the pension had been fully funded by the state over the last nine years — they made every bit of the contribution — we would still be at 74 percent of the funding instead of 64 percent of the funding,” Christie said at a town hall in Woodbridge. “Fact is, people are living longer, the benefits are too rich and we can’t keep up.”
For those at the lower end of the pay scale, like Witter, retirement seems like a distant option. She worries the proposed changes will prompt the public and private sector to mimic each other and make even deeper cuts, hurting all low- and middle-class families.
“He is forcing families to race to the bottom,” Witter said.
Lowest salary — $24,960.16
Median salary for state workers — $62,267.55
Median CWA member — $63,363.01
Non-union employee median — $99,154.01
Cabinet Member — $141,000
Christie — $175,000
Highest salary — $216,924
Number of people making more than the governor — 273
Number of people on the payroll with an annual salary in 2010 — 83,542
Number of people making less than $50,000 — 25,302
Number of people making more than $100,000 — 6,026
Lowest full-time salary — $24,960.16
Highest full-time salary — $216,924.00
Sources: Payroll data, U.S Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau