Tyrus W. Cobb: Government pay system mystifies long-time servant | NevadaAppeal.com

Tyrus W. Cobb: Government pay system mystifies long-time servant

Tyrus W. Cobb
For the Nevada Appeal

The union movement in America has stalled, except for government employees. Today 7.5 percent of all private sector employees are union members, but more than 37 percent of government workers are unionized and that number is growing. At the same time the government employee federations are increasingly involved in political activities, lobbying Congress and state legislatures, supporting candidates, and advocating for medical and retirement benefits unavailable in the private sector.

In the past, we adhered to a strict separation of powers, and if one worked in state or local governments, you were not able to cross over and also serve in the legislative bodies. However, as Las Vegas Review Journal columnist Vin Suprynowicz writes, the unions have been able to overturn centuries of tradition to allow a person who works in one branch of government to hold elective office. (“Power Play: State’s Separation of Powers Doctrine Effectively Ignored,” LVRJ, May 15) This has led to concentration of power in one branch of government, which, Thomas Jefferson argued, “… is precisely the definition of despotic government.”

This is all hard for me to understand.

I served in the government for 28 years, 26 of that in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam. No unions, no overtime. Not since I worked as a dishwasher at Harrah’s more than 50 years ago did I receive any “overtime.”

In the Army and in a six-year stint at the White House you essentially worked 24/7. There were hardships – bad guys shooting at you in Vietnam, separated from your family for a year each time, slogging through the swamps when the temperature was above 100 and the humidity equally so. Long hours also in Washington but that was expected.

It is thus difficult for me to comprehend public employees today, especially at the managerial level, accumulating sick days, racking up overtime, and in the case of public safety officials, chalking up double time or more when “called back,” whatever that means.

It is disheartening to read about firemen “planning” sick leave well in advance, or senior fire officials in Clark County making more than $500,000 in one year – all also padding their retirement (which in some cases exceeds their final pay). It is equally difficult to understand how battalion fire chiefs in Reno took home an average of $245,000 in 2009, according to Transparency Nevada.

It is hard to understand why these same chiefs are unionized. I thought that once a public official entered management ranks that they were no longer “union,” they were part of the oversight structure. One would think they at least would be beyond “overtime.” And I certainly thought that if you achieved senior status in public safety or in local government, you certainly didn’t also see yourself as eligible for serving in the legislative branch.

In my volunteer position as Civilian Assistant to the Secretary of the Army, I work with active duty, guard and reserve forces before and after deployments to the combat zones. Some are on their fourth, fifth or even sixth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. No unions, no overtime, pay about a third that of a local firefighter, long separations, fearing being hit by IEDs, searing heat and constant danger. Not sure that is fair or equitable. Yes, it bothers me.

As a long time government servant, I’m just not sure I understand why government employees can be union, why there is such a thing as overtime for managerial positions, guaranteed sick leave, cost-of-living adjustments even if the cost of living does not go up, and why we permit these employees to serve in more than one branch of government.

• Tyrus W. Cobb is former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.