Some advice for elected officials: if you’re going to repeat talking points from public employee unions, fact-check them first.

Writing in the Daily News, State Senator Robert Jackson and Rochester Mayor Malik Evans deployed a statistic they said supports retroactively sweetening public employee pensions by weakening the 2012 pension reforms known as “Tier 6.”

“Since 2021,” they wrote, “a staggering 16,858 employees have departed from state and public employment, leaving behind a void that imperils our safety, our education, and our collective well-being.”

What makes that stat strange? For one thing, it’s too low. The state workforce has a normal level of churn as people retire, resign, get fired or otherwise stop working.

So where did it come from? The “staggering” figure appears to be taken verbatim from a Public Employees Federation (PEF) lobbyist. And it’s recognizable because it came from PEF’s lobbyist, Randi DiAntonio, misreading calendar 2021 data and presenting it as the cumulative figure.

From PEF’s account of her October 2023 testimony: 

“Since 2021, the state has lost 16,858 employees due to attrition,” she told the committee, chaired by Sen. Robert Jackson, a former PEF member. “This is the highest level of attrition recorded in the decade that the report has been compiled by the Office of the State Comptroller.”

The actual number of attrited state workers in the period was well over 33,000. As explained below, there isn’t much to be made of the figure itself. But the episode, most importantly, showed the extent to which New York elected officials fail to question the state’s public employee unions—or look at data themselves.

The hardly staggering but definitely inaccurate figure, which Jackson and Evans said showed an “alarming exodus,” includes five disparate things: retirements, resignations, layoffs, terminations and deaths. It also includes people who worked temporary gigs with the state—that is, people who never expected to stay on the job. 

Since DiAntonio was arguing that the level of pension benefits offered to new employees is negatively affecting retention, retirees (people paid to stop working) don’t belong in the count, nor do the smaller numbers of terminations, layoffs and deaths. 

The state hasn’t published discrete resignation, termination, layoff or death figures in more than a decade, but subtracting retirements from total attrition allows you to isolate non-retirement separations (which are predominantly resignations). (Figure 1) 

Figure 1. 

Source: NYS Dept. of Civil Service 

DiAntonio also left out a few other key details: the number of non-retirement separations has risen in part because the state has done more hiring (something that undercuts her union’s separate argument that Tier 6 harmed recruitment). 

That’s primarily because many if not most non-retirement separations involve workers who have been on the job less than a year. The more new hires, the more separations.

As Civil Service officials noted last year: “The State workforce continues to be highly stable when viewed over time. In fact, the rate of attrition, or the number of employees who leave the workforce, has not changed much since 2001.” [emphasis added]

That’s not to take away from the fact that the labor market remains heavily disrupted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. An unprecedented tightening occurred in 2021 and 2022 (figure 2), which contributed to attrition at state agencies. But that’s hardly justification to retroactively sweeten pensions for roughly half of state and local government workers.  

Figure 2. 

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics JOLTS data 

In their op-ed, Jackson and Evans said Tier 6 is “contributing to declining staffing levels across all levels of government.” 

But here the data don’t match their arguments, either. 

In state government, where Governor Hochul has been on a hiring spree, the number of full-time equivalents rose more than 6,000 year-over-year in the latest data (January 2024 vs. January 2023). The number of FTEs was up in 42 out of 50 state agencies, plus the judicial and legislative branches. And one of the shrinking agencies was the Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS), where headcount is dropping because the state has fewer people locked up.

Meanwhile some school districts are considering layoffs because they used temporary COVID funds to staff up (again, contrary to union claims about Tier 6 hindering hiring).

Finally, Senator Jackson and Mayor Evans borrowed a dubious line from labor, bemoaning how state law now “mandates a retirement age of 63 with 40 years of service.”  

Trouble is, it doesn’t. Nothing in state law requires anyone to work 40 years for anything. People need only work five years to vest in a public pension in New York (which Governor Hochul and lawmakers trimmed from 10 years in 2022). And they can begin collecting a reduced pension as young as age 55. 

The operative thing in that sentence is the retirement age of 63, which most new state and local government workers must reach (whether working five, 40, or 45 years) before getting a full pension. The public employee unions are unhappy that an older provision—letting people retire with full pensions at age 55 if they’ve worked 30 years—was discontinued in 2009. But that sort of demand sounds unreasonable by private-sector norms, and so the “40 years” non sequitur was born.

For people working in the private sector, most of whom don’t have pensions in the first place, the taxpayer-guaranteed, state-tax exempt benefits now on offer from public employers would be a massive upgrade from what’s available to them. The closest New York’s private-sector workers come to benefits like that is when they’re forced to pay higher taxes to fund them.

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