As political furor over unions continues nationwide, Bryon Blocher quietly wades through increasing workloads as a $34,900-a-year civil servant in an unassuming office in downtown Medford.
"It frustrates me when people say I get paid too much or get too many benefits," said Blocher, 45, an office specialist with the Department of Human Services and a member of the Service Employees International Union Local 503.
$34,800 annual salary
State pays for his health
insurance — $14,052 annually
With caseloads for food stamps and medical care rising during the recession, Blocher said colleagues in the cubicles surrounding him have taken on more work in recent years. In some cases, he said, he and other workers have volunteered time to get work done on weekends or after hours. He said he often performs duties outside his job descriptions, such as running cables or troubleshooting computers.
Blocher, a White City resident who already has lost wages from furlough days, wonders what's in store for him as lawmakers put the pressure on unions to make concessions given the state's $3.5 billion budget hole.
Many people assume union workers such as Blocher get paid more than their counterparts in the private sector. But according to a study by the Oregon Department of Administrative Services in December, state workers earn almost 3 percent less on average.
Teachers often receive the brunt of criticism for high compensation, receiving an average $93,000 per year in Oregon in pay, health insurance and retirement benefits. In Medford, teachers on average receive $91,300 in total compensation.
Teachers' salaries and benefits packages are negotiated by school districts, not by the state, even though much of the funding for schools comes from the state budget.
By comparison, the average teacher at the private St. Mary's School in Medford receives $55,900, including benefits. Most St. Mary's teachers have a master's degree.
Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said teachers' compensation packages have evolved over the years and are the result of past bargaining negotiations.
He cited one Southern Oregon teacher who in the 1970s earned $7,000 annually and had to take food stamps to help feed his family. The teacher continued working until 2003, when he received a decent retirement plan, Buckley said.
"People have to understand there was a trade-off," Buckley said. "I think teachers deserve every penny they earn."
Buckley said many school districts such as Portland now require teachers to pick up the 6 percent toward PERS that public employers pay for their workers.
He said Gov. John Kitzhaber already has asked more teachers and other unions to do the same or risk furlough days.
The concessions being asked of unions could save $350 million in the state budget, Buckley said.
Union workers are not confined just to teachers and state employees.
For instance, firefighters and police, with whom it's difficult to draw private-sector salary comparisons, also belong to unions.
In Medford, a police officer at the top of the pay scale earns $5,417 a month. The city also pays $325 toward PERS, $165 toward a medical savings account and $1,000 toward health insurance every month. The officer pays $195 toward the health insurance premium.
A firefighter at the top of the pay scale earns $5,417 a month. The city also pays $348 toward PERS and $139 toward a medical savings account. For health insurance, the city pays $1,374 or $1,214 a month, depending on the plan. The city also pays another $56 or $216 toward the medical savings account, depending on the plan. Firefighters don't pay anything toward their health insurance premiums.
Comparing union jobs with private sector jobs was part of a lengthy process between the state Department of Administrative Services and representatives from the Service Employees International Union.
Tom Perry, state labor relations manager, said every effort was made to compare a union job with a similar job in the private sector.
"We want to compare apples to apples," he said.
The report found that Oregon public workers made almost 12 percent more than comparable salaries and benefits in the four surrounding states, but more than 10 percent less than their counterparts in cities and counties within Oregon.
For the executive branch of state government, employees received about 3 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector. Compared to other states, Oregon public workers in the executive branch received almost 15 percent more, the report found.
Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said he doesn't buy the state salary comparison report showing many state workers making less than their counterparts in the private sector.
"I find that difficult to believe, and I also don't believe it," he said.
He questioned how many private sector employees have $1,200-a-month insurance.
"How many janitors in the private sector do you know that make $50,000 to $70,000?" he asked.
Ed Hershey, spokesman for the SEIU Local 503, said public employees generally have received only modest salary increases in recent years in exchange for a better benefits package.
Now, he said, the state is turning around asking the union workers to pay more for the benefits.
"If benefits are cut, the lower-end workers will get hurt more," he said.
Blocher, who has been working for the state for 17 years, expects he will be one of those workers who bears the brunt of state cuts.
Blocher's total compensation package is roughly equivalent to the statewide average for an office specialist 2 position. The statewide compensation package for that position averages $4,174 a month, or just over 1 percent less than the equivalent position in the private sector at $4,229, according to the Department of Administrative Services.
Blocher grosses about $2,900 a month and his take home averages between $1,900 and $2,000 a month. State-mandated furlough days mean that he is paid less on certain months. Blocher's employer pays for his entire health plan, which costs $1,171 a month, and the equivalent of 6 percent of his salary toward PERS.
Blocher said he is taking less of a salary to get more in benefits.
Blocher anticipates ongoing contract negotiations with the state could force him to contribute toward his health premium.
His retirement plan is confusing, he admits, and he is not a big fan of the PERS system.
"One account keeps going down, the other keeps going up," he said. "It's become so convoluted. I wish I could cash it out and go get something I could control. I would really like the state to get their hands off it."
Blocher pointed out that his employer pickup of 6 percent for his retirement was negotiated years ago in lieu of a wage increase.
If he has to pay more into his retirement and more into his health plan, Blocher said he should get a salary hike as some compensation, otherwise he will slip further behind the private sector.
"The economy is going one direction," he said. "Our pay is going down along with it."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail email@example.com.
What's the difference?
Monthly comparison of public and private sector jobs, including salary, health benefits and retirement.
Source: Oregon Department of Administrative Services