Once widely used, the now arcane term “featherbedding” describes perfectly the modus operandi of public sector unions in the state of Connecticut.
Webster’s dictionary defines featherbedding as “the requiring of an employer, usually under union rule or safety statute, to hire more employees than are needed or to limit production.” Wikipedia offers the same definition, elaborating that featherbedding involves “work procedures which appear pointless, complex and time-consuming merely to employ additional workers.”
A recent CT Mirror article on staffing in one of the state’s 15 prisons reported “According to figures provided by DOC [Department of Corrections], there were 139 corrections officers and supervisors for 78 inmates one day last month. That does not include medical or mental health staff assigned to the facility [Northern Correctional Institution].”
An isolated aberration? No.
The recent article stated “Northern’s numbers mirror declining prison populations across the state.” It quoted DOC spokeswoman Karen Martucci saying first that “We don’t have any concrete plans to close a facility,” and, then, that “closing a prison saves money, but most of the cash spent on correctional institutions goes toward staffing. State employees will not be laid off if a facility closes.”
The state has 139-plus workers guarding 78 inmates in a facility which can house 584 prisoners, and there are no plans to close prisons and no plans to lay off prison staff? This is the kind of lunacy that is official policy in the Nutmeg State.
Make no mistake, it is policy. Former Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, struck two omnibus agreements with his allies, the state labor unions, under which state employees are enjoying the ninth of 10 straight years of an iron-clad no-layoff guarantee running through June 30, 2021.
Amazingly, Malloy has been lionized in some quarters for allegedly downsizing the state workforce, despite the logic that a no-layoffs policy would prevent any meaningful downsizing and despite actual data showing insignificant workforce reduction of only about 1 percent per year during his two terms.
Having written recently about Malloy’s undeserved reputation for downsizing, this columnist received an interesting email from a state clerical worker whose job was eliminated at the Department of Social Services in 2016. The worker said: “I was transferred to one of the regional offices. I sit around most of the day and do norhing (sic)… Its (sic) almost unbearable.” The email continued “I am unable to retire at the moment.”
It was a heartfelt message, but revealed an undeniable reality. The worker had absolute job protection, while 100,000 taxpayers lost private sector jobs in the Great Recession. This clerk could quit, but hasn’t. Why? Because overgenerous state wages cannot be replicated in the private sector. The clerk is “unable to retire.” Why? Likely because the clerk’s state pension hasn’t vested fully, as I suggested in reply, which the clerk acknowledged in our email exchange. Few workers in the private sector have pensions.
With due respect to this worker, what is “unbearable” is that state taxpayers should be paying wages and a full pension to a worker who hasn’t actually worked in years. This is grossly unfair, and, if this isn’t featherbedding, what is?
Coincidentally, there’s controversy raging currently about capacity utilization and staffing in the state’s 213 quasi-public nursing homes. Medicaid per-patient per-diem reimbursement rates have been reduced for nine homes with high vacancy rates of 30-to-50 percent based on licensed bed capacity.
Nursing home operators object that Democrats are imposing an unfair retroactive rule change proposed in February 2019 but based upon September 2018 occupancy, leaving no opportunity to comply with the new occupancy standards.
Also unfair and grossly misleading is that the SEIU 1199 health care union is scaremongering that all nine homes may close, jeopardizing the health and welfare of 1,000 patients and 2,000 jobs (numbers which suggest overstaffing).
There’s no jeopardy. According to state and industry data, in the case of each of the nine homes, there are more than twice as many beds of equal or better quality rating available in other homes within 15 miles — other homes to which patients and workers could transfer easily. Statewide, there are reported to be 3,000 vacant beds out of a total of 26,000 beds, suggesting some system-wide overcapacity.
So, apart from the unfair retroactivity, the rate reduction seems a reasonable effort to encourage reduction of overcapacity and overstaffing in a few dramatic cases.
Tragically, there’s no straightforward way to reduce the unnecessarily high labor costs and dramatic over-staffing and overcapacity in several sectors of state operations created by Malloy’s decade-long no-layoff guarantee to state labor unions, including SEIU.
It is nothing new to say that public sector unions are bankrupting Connecticut. However, the myriad ways in which they extract overgenerous pay, outrageous benefits, absolute job protection and exemption from any concept of productivity never ceases to amaze.
Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.