From Illinois Issues magazine, University of Illinois at Springfield, September, 2012, pp. 24-27. See attachment.


Illinois' public workers face a morale crisis

By Robert Bruno
What exactly did Illinois teachers, police officers, firefighters, sanitation employees, correction officers, building inspectors, employment service representatives, bus drivers, child welfare specialists, residential care workers, lab technicians or librarians do wrong?

Did the majority - or even a minority  - of teachers ignore children's feelings or fail to explain something like photosynthesis or not give a bewildering battery of questionable tests? Were there large numbers of police officers who let crime happen or who ignored public safety and simply walked away from danger? Has anyone ever heard of a firefighter not risking his or her life to put out a fire or refusing to apply emergency life saving procedures to a critical patient?

Anyone  know even one, just one?

Do the folks hired to remove most of our personal refuse callously toss the waste back into our yards? Has anyone heard of a prison guard who has let a violent criminal - or any inmate - just walk out of a jail cell?

Just how many of the thousands of approved building permits result in garages that collapse on the family car? What percentage of eligible workers who file for unemployment relief go without the difference between staying in their homes and living out of their cars because a public employee failed to file a form? When was the last time you had a valid bus or train ticket but you were not allowed to board? Are employees who serve at-risk children and  disabled adults not processing ridiculously high caseloads or willfully subjecting the state's most vulnerable residents to abuse?

What proportion of the thousands of ill patients is suffering because state medical personnel lack the skills to do their jobs? And for heaven's sake, are there obstinate librarians who can't find the books you want or won't show you how to conduct research for your English term paper? I can honestly say that after publishing three books and numerous scholarly articles, I've never met an unhelpful librarian. Seriously, does one such person even exist?

Unless you honestly answered yes to any of the above questions, you might think you have fallen down the rabbit-hole where, like Alice, you are forced to deny what you know to be true about Illinois' public employees. Instead of embracing the high civic mindedness of public employees, you are fooled by a politically manufactured unreality where, as the Mad Hatter explains, "nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary-wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?"

There is no Illinois-specific barometer that measures the disposition of the state's public employees, but experts across the country have referred to a "public service morale crisis:' As one educator notes in a study focusing on Chicago K-12 teachers that I conducted along with my colleague Steven Ashby, the prevailing mood is a sense of disorientation and demoralization: 'The only thing that keeps me going during this really stressful, demoralizing year is the students. When students come to you with questions, when they ask for letters of recommendation, they keep you motivated. We're here for the kids, ultimately. So many teachers this year have told me that they're thinking of quitting. It's sad. Every day, teachers talk to me about the teacher-bashing in the media. People here work so hard. To hear they're retiring early and wanting to leave is really, really awful. Our kids deserve teachers who are happy to come to work every day and who feel supported."

As citizens, we know the value of public service and we recognize that without the roughly 51,000 state and 450,000 educational and local government employees, life in Illinois for its roughly 13 million residents would become, to quote Thomas Hobbs, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short:' A quick estimate reveals that slightly more than 3 percent of the state's citizens are servicing the other 97 percent; hardly a ratio that would be a drain on the commonwealth. So why the political and editorial page attacks on what highly educated teachers earn or what a child welfare advocate will accumulate in retirement savings? Study after study has demonstrated that after controlling for multiple factors -including level of education, hours worked and non "cash compensation" - public employees are compensated less well than similarly situated private sector workers. One analysis by my university colleague Craig Olson found that K-12 public school teachers in Wisconsin assume a considerable wage penalty for wanting nothing more than to partner with parents in lifting up the great hope in every child. There are in exceptional cases some public employees who can supplement their base earnings. Firefighters, for instance, commit to lifelong learning and are paid to acquire additional lifesaving skills.

Would you prefer it otherwise?

Think for a moment about what public sector employees protect and preserve. Illinois' natural resources encompass 60 parks and roughly an equal number of preserves. Public bodies across the state are responsible for managing nearly 500 million acres of land and water and provide stewardship over no fewer than 50,000 square miles of land.

The state supports, sadly less and less every year, nine depending on how you count  -  universities and operates 29 correctional institutions. More than 3 million children learn to read, write, do mathematics and most importantly, learn how to be fully participatory citizens of a democracy in approximately 900 school districts. There are at least 1,100 and 1,300 municipal fire and police departments, respectively, spread across the state protecting the sanctity of more than 5 million housing units and 300,000 business establishments. Municipal, village and county officials issue in excess of 11,000 housing building permits annually and then inspect the work to be certain it complies with applicable codes. There are also six operating nuclear plants regulated by the state and hundreds of sanitation and water reclamation districts.

Illinois services 143,000 miles of"centerline" roads (two-way traffic with a line painted down the middle), at least 12 major interstate highways, 7,313 miles of railroad track and 50 airports. The state's publicly maintained transportation network moves millions of people to and from their jobs and points of interest. On Illinois toil roads, there are more than 800 million toll transactions a year. More than a million rail passengers travel annually on the five Amtrak lines operated by the state. And in Chicago last year, 66 million flyers moved through O'Hare and Midway airports, while weekday bus and subway hoardings exceeded 1.5 million.

Put aside for the moment the bellicose partisan bickering over the structure and size of Ilinois' public sector and consider the mere dimensions of the state's footprint. I have no reasonable estimate of the property asset value of the state, but a conservative and casual guess would be billions. Whatever the absurdly high dollar amount, it is important to realize that the entity called the ''state of Illinois" represents the people's assets. It is their collective holdings of public goods held In common. Delivering and caring for these goods enriches the citizens in three interlocking self-enriching ways.

First, we all get somebody to put the fire out in our house, with lives and property thereby saved. But secondly, because somebody teaches us how to read and write (those heretofore mentioned underpaid teacher's) we significantly increase our individual ability to earn private goods, like income, and thus avoid becoming dependent on state aid. Finally, a portion of our privately awarded goods - which we would not have had if not for a public sector - is recycled back in the form of taxes and fees to replenish the wealth of the commons.  Realizing the expansive outer circumference of our public goods and the interdependent ways we all benefit from them raises the following question: Why would we demean the people we entrust with our collective assets?

There is no doubt that our elected leaders and too many opinion makers are dishing out plenty of disrespect for the people who, in effect, take care of our "house". Is it because they never thought about how poor and working-class people who were sick became well? Maybe they never wondered who cut the grass or how the flowers were watered in the parks their children use. Nature and vehicular traffic opened up the potholes, but do they ever think about who filled them? Who, after all, maintains the state's vast infrastructure? Who educates the state's future doctors, lawyers, business  leaders, engineers, chemists, teachers, doctors, jazz pianists and, yes, librarians? Who takes your picture when you apply for one of the state's 8 million driver's licenses? Who processes thousands of medical claims for the poor, sick, injured and disabled?

The disembodied way that Springfield and local political leaders, as well as media commentators, speak of government employment reminds me of Bertolt Brecht's poem, Questions from a Worker Who Reads." The poem's opening stanza includes the following:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go?

It is shamefully easy to demand that government employees earn less, accept increased retirement insecurity and pay more for the privilege of serving us all when those workers are present but invisible. We admire, consume and individually benefit from the way government employees tend our common "gardens:' We like the flowers; we would rather not see the worker who got dirty tilling the soil. When political leaders, business heads, privatization advocates and main street editors appropriate the state's wealth and then preach fiscal austerity, they act as if the public employee was a cipher instead of a servant.

Not only are public employees net contributors to lllinois' prosperity who work and pay more in taxes than they use in public services such as Medicaid, they are a relatively small group. lllinois has the lowest and still-falling per capita state work force in the nation. As citizens, we are not sufficiently mindful that within the more than three dozen state agencies, including Aging, Agriculture, Capital Development, Commerce, Employment Security,

Study identifies teacher burnout

Teacher burnout was one of the subjects addressed in the April report, Beyond the Classroom: An Analysis of a Chicago Public School Teachers Actual Workday.

Until recently, the Chicago Public Schools system had one of the shortest school days in the nation: five hours and 45 minutes for elementary school students; and six hours and 45 minutes for high school students. Sometimes-hostile negotiations involving Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration, the school district and the Chicago Teachers' Union resulted in a 2012-13 school day of seven hours for elementary students; and seven and a half hours for high school students. The CPS announced in July that an additional 475 teachers would be hired to address the lengthened day.

University of lllinois labor relations professors Robert Bruno and Steven Ashby and U of I Chicago graduate student Frank Manzo co-wrote a scholarly paper in which they surveyed 983 Chicago Public Schools teachers. Bruno is director of the Labor Education program under the School of Labor and Employment Relations, and Ashby is a professor of labor and employment relations.

"Everyone knows a teacher's role goes beyond classroom instruction;' Bruno said in a university news release. "We wanted to quantify how much beyond instruction that role extends."

The study found that teachers work 58 hours per week on average during the school year and that they spend almost an additional two hours working at home in the evening.

Work, the researchers found, continues on the weekend for an average of three hours and 45 minutes. They also reported that teachers spend more than three hours a day on non-teaching activities.

The study also found that teachers spend an average of 12 days during the summer break performing at least one school-related activity and that they undergo an additional 30 hours of professional development training while the school year is not in session.

Chicago public school teachers "burn out" at a higher-than-usual rate, Bruno said in the release.

"The turnover rate is almost 50 percent of faculty within five years. Nobody ever quite steps back and says, 'What are we doing to these teachers in this five-year period that's generating such turnover?' One of the recommendations we make is for an examination of the impact of nearly 60-hour work weeks on teacher stress, creativity, job satisfaction and turnover."

One teacher who was surveyed told the researchers:"During my lunch period, rarely do I just eat lunch - I'm usually doing two or three things while I'm eating. I never fee/like I'm done, I never feel like I'm caught up. We work very hard. Sometimes after school, when I'm trying to enter grades, I can hardly keep my eyes open."

Another teacher reported: "One of the most stressful things about my job is that I'm more than a teacher. Students come up to tell me about serious things in their lives. About a fiend whose boyfriend beat her up. About bullying. About sexual abuse. About being stalked. About being homeless -we've 50 homeless kids in our school. As their teacher; you're the only adult outside the immediate family that the child deals with. You are the normal for them. You are their teacher, counselor and therapist; you are so much more than a teacher. Teaching is a very nurturing job. The school is understaffed; there aren't enough social workers to handle all the problems the kids have:'
Healthcare and Family Services, Public Health, Transportation and Veterans Affairs: a largely unionized workforce serves the public. Making these workers pay the price for a fiscal problem they did not create by, for example, making them pay more for their post-employment medical care, threatening to reduce their pension savings and withholding contractual pay raises, is heaping insult upon injury. What we have in lllinois is a shrinking, embattled and deeply apprehensive public workforce earning below market pay but charged with taking care of nearly 13 million citizens,
800,000 of them whom are veterans.

For all their dedicated service, public employees are subjected to a frenzied echo-chamber of calls from conservative political leaders and media outlets to erode the quality of public service. Reading and listening to frantic diatribes against government employee benefits helps me to better understand why Eugene Ionesco, a Romanlan-bom dramatist and playwright, ruefully claimed that "a civil servant doesn't make jokes:' There is actually something tragic and.farcical about having a Democratic Chicago mayor and a Democratic governor Withholding contracted guaranteed pay raises for unionized public employees at the same time. Once again, in thinking about the treatment of our public servants, it is Alice's·exasperation that comes to mind: "It would be so nice if something made Sense for a change".
I am at a loss to understand what version of public service we are communicating workers.We have withdrawn a long way from the ancient Greeks' notion that happiness was closely connected to the success and fulfillment achieved during public service. Socrates' Nicomachean Ethics claimed that the end goal of human existence is a kind of happiness achieved by contributing to the public good. Aristotle further argued in the Politics that civil servitude was the most effective means of instilling personal and Civic virture. In Book III of The Social Contract, Jean Rousseau states that "as soon  as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall." Paying taxes is important, but no amount would matter without citizens who desire to serve the public.

When politicians collect the people's money to serve the people's interests, while simultaneously disrespecting the workers who do the people's work, it strips public service of its virtue and destroys morale. It also vilifies the workers who implement and deliver the initiatives of the very same politicians who slander the public sector. Scapegoating government workers for the failures of Wall Street and finance capitalism will certainly cause government employees to suffer, as well as the vast majority of citizens who depend on public goods. Only those people who can buy their way into private enclaves of human existence will go largely unscarred by a diminished public sector. The following June 28 headline in the Illinois Times suggests that reduced public benefits along with punitive cuts in public spending have already pushed us closer to Rousseau's failed state: "Illinois Is Falling Apart."

Timing is everything. Precisely when budgets are being cut we are asking front line·employees who have been stereotyped as burdens on the taxpayers to work with and for less. Contrary to how political leaders and critics of government obscure the realities of public service, state add local employees do not have an instrumental relationship With the mission of their employer. Teachers do not care less about students when the schools they teach for care less about the teachers. Mental health technicians are no less sensitive to their patients when the medical clinics they work for care less for the people who provide the care. Firefighters will still run into burning buildings even if they have to pay to clean their own uniforms. But teachers should be honored, medical staff appreciated and firefighters held in the highest regard so that they can always proudly display the colors of their municipality's firehouse.

I have no doubt that as the shameful assault on state and local civil servants continues, the vast majority of current public employees will do their duty. But even the most dedicated librarian can only do so much, and if the state's political leadership succeeds in devaluing the public sector, the troubling thought that interrupts my meditative morning walks is: Who will help my daughter find the book she needs tomorrow?

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, is director of the Labor Education program under the School of Labor and Employment Relations.