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Pension Panic Fueled by Anti-Worker Politics?

8:50 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Pew Center on the States

Originally posted at In These Times

It’s a common refrain in local papers: State faces pension funding crisis! Retiree benefits out of control! Public pensions bog down taxpayers! Pension costs seem to loom over so many state and local budget battles like a sinister sword of Damocles, a dark reminder of Big Government’s tyrannical profligacy.

Should we panic? Well, according to a new report by the Pew Center on the States, 61 cities face a collective fiscal retirement burden of more than $210 billion, in part because consistent underfunding of benefits leaves yawning gaps in long-term cost projections. The report surveyed all U.S. cities with populations over 500,000, along with the most populous city in each state. Some cities are doing better than others in maintaining funds, but gaps persist, according to Pew’s estimates for fiscal years 2007-2010, especially in municipalities where local governments have lacked the “fiscal discipline” to keep up pension fund contributions—a situation exacerbated by the Great Recession.

But different political actors have different motives for expressing alarm over pension gaps. In some cases, dubiously calculated figures have inflated public concern.

Sometimes, politicians frame cost-cutting proposals as if “generous” benefits themselves are the problem, as opposed to officials failing to uphold the commitments they’ve made to civil servants. Read the rest of this entry →

The Right to Be Healthy: Supreme Court Weighs Sick Leave for State Workers

12:04 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

SCOTUS (image: debaird, flickr)

SCOTUS (image: debaird, flickr)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

One day in August 2007, Daniel Coleman, an administrator in the Maryland court system, decided he should stay home to recover from an illness, as his doctor had ordered. But the day after he requested time off, he suddenly had more to worry about than his health; he was unemployed, too.

In many industrialized countries around the world, taking time off from work to deal with a medical issue isn’t just a benefit; it’s considered an entitlement, as much as an eight-hour day. But in the world’s richest nation, a worker who claims that right has had to appeal to the highest court in the land.

So the Supreme Court will now weigh the rights of public employees to seek justice under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The case, Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, is based on Coleman’s lawsuit alleging that he was unfairly terminated following a dispute with his supervisor over leave time. Pitting Coleman, together with many civil rights advocates, against Maryland and 26 other states, the central question is whether a state can be held accountable under the law as a private employer would.

The FMLA basically allows workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid time off to deal with either a personal or family health concern. Although a worker at a private company can clearly sue for monetary damages if she is fired for taking time off for pregnancy or to care for a sick child–some courts have ruled differently for state workers’ rights. A lower court found that Maryland is shielded from legal liability in this case under the Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity clause.

The issue before the Court isn’t just a question of workers’ medical rights when they fall seriously ill, but of the state’s obligation to to its employees. Gender matters, too; the FMLA, under the Equal Protection clause, was designed to counter employment discrimination based on women’s medical issues, like childbirth. (But the “self-care” provision in the Coleman case covers both men and women.)

A coalition of groups, including the National Partnership for Women & Families, unions, and the ACLU, argued in a friend-of-the-court brief: Read the rest of this entry →

Scant Room for Equity in Obama’s Talking Points on Jobs

7:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo by Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

Cross-posted from In These Times.

President Obama’s jobs speech before Congress struck an uncomfortable balance between the art of the possible and the sophistry of defeatism.

The speech did offer some serious ideas about reinvigorating the stagnant economy. But for all the talking points—from infrastructure investment to initiatives to promote hiring of veterans and the long-term unemployed—his eloquent words sidestepped the ideological barriers imposed by Washington’s reactionary ideologues. Meanwhile, the groups suffering the worst of the economic crisis—the poor, people of color, single women—may be hurt more by his careful omissions than they’d be helped by his proposals.

First, it’s far from clear whether the initiatives laid out in the speech, particularly the tax-cutting provisions, would make a significant dent in unemployment. The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild points out that the structure of Obama’s highlighted payroll tax cut could be considered “regressive,” in that the bonus will be weighted toward the pockets of higher income-earners rather than the working poor.

More broadly, the pitch for cautiously modest, though earnest, stimulus measures seemed designed to ease the path toward more deficit slashing and cutbacks on social programs in the long run. The subtext appears to be a drive toward austerity and “entitlement reform”—pivoting toward conservatives who routinely demonize “nanny state” institutions like Social Security and Medicare. So despite rhetoric that pundits praised as “Trumanesque” and “fiery,” celebrating historic public works and exhorting Congress to cooperate for once, the speech was silent on the institutional pillars that should buttress any job creation plan. Read the rest of this entry →