Montana Viewpoint: Public servants serve the nation well

Jim Elliott

Last week was Public Service Recognition Week, an event that seems to have largely gone unnoticed despite a proclamation from President Trump saying, in part;

“Members of our Federal, State, and local workforces bring incredible skills, tireless dedication, and selfless service to a broad range of career fields. Our Nation’s civil servants include teachers, mail carriers, first responders, transit workers, and law enforcement officers. Our Federal employees underpin nearly all the operations of our Government.”

Essentially the week is to honor anybody who draws a paycheck from any kind of governmental agency from president down to animal control officer (formerly “dogcatcher”). There are a lot of them and most of them toil in obscure jobs that are all instrumental in keeping us citizens safe and healthy, ranging from armed services grunts to … well, dogcatcher.

Unfortunately, they get a bad rap from many citizens which they do not deserve, and so I’m taking the time to recognize them, thank them, and point out some misconceptions about them.

The most damning criticism is that they do not earn their money, and what money they get does not contribute to the economy. Wrong on both counts. As my father once told me, “Money doesn’t care who owns it.” And money earned by those in the public sector seems to be gladly accepted by shopkeepers and corporations nationwide.

That money generates a profit where it is spent and that profit contributes to the economy. Yes, some say, but government employees are paid with taxpayer dollars which are earned in the private sector (except for taxes paid by government employees), so it is somehow different. That’s where they lose me.

And they do earn their wages. Government employees I know and have worked with care about the work they do, do it conscientiously, and often work more than a forty-hour week to get it done. Governments, in an exercise in false economy and to curry political favor from taxpayers will cut the number of employees doing a certain job to save money that would be spent on salaries. This is known as “vacancy savings” (money saved by not paying salary to a vacant position) and is primarily used to balance budgets that are out of whack.

The problem is that while the workforce then decreases, the workload doesn’t. So, to make up the slack, employees work longer in order to do the work once done by others. Use vacancy savings to balance the budget enough times and you can run into real economic problems.

In Montana in the 1980s the staff at the Workers Compensation Bureau had been lowered to the point where employee injury claims were not being processed in anything near a timely manner, so the claimants got lawyers (or maybe the lawyers got claimants) and sued Workers Comp which resulted in larger claims settlements inflated by the lawyers’ fees of both the claimant and the defendant.

You can see that it can get messy. Take a group of overworked employees and they can get a little cranky and rude to the public they deal with.

In general, Americans have a work ethic that is second to none. Those holding public or private sector jobs will work until the job is done regardless of the salary or overtime. If money doesn’t care who owns it, work doesn’t care who does it or how they get paid.

So, even though Public Employee Appreciation Week is over, take a minute to thank the next government employee you encounter, and at least think about the many, many more you don’t see who keep America going.

Take it from me, they are giving us our money’s worth, and for that, I thank them.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.