Note: This is part of a series of posts detailing the 2009 Pennsylvania budget impasse. To see all posts in this series, click here.
For many Pennsylvania state employees, today is a red-letter day. Today is the last day that I’ll get a full paycheck for an indeterminate period of time. Because our legislature and governor have gone on vacation, our state budget remains deadlocked. Without a budget, the state can’t spend any money (well, except for inmates and the legislators). Without any money, paychecks for every state employee will dry up by the end of this month. Every employee, from temporary employees to the upper echelons of management, is being asked to work without pay.
There are two pay periods in use throughout the state. Some employees are paid today, some were paid last Friday. I’m getting paid today. On July 24th, I will receive one last paycheck for the final two days in June — about enough to pay my electric bill and provide a month’s worth of food and gas, if I’m frugal. Although I’m single and don’t have any children to support, I do have an auto loan, a mortgage, a flight training loan, homeowner insurance, car insurance, electricity, phone, and gas to pay for. And I suppose I’ll have to cram food in there somewhere as well.
In early 2008, I took a large chunk of cash out of savings to pay off my student loans — certainly a frugal, responsible financial move. Even though my loans were at a reasonable (by student loan standards) fixed 5.9%, paying them off nine years early saved tens of thousands of dollars in interest charges. Throughout the year I worked an obscene amount of overtime, sometimes putting in 60-75 hours in a single week, in order to replenish my savings. And although doing so wiped out my social life for the year and left me completely exhausted, it was worth it.
Later in the year I took out another big chunk of savings to remodel my house — also a sound investment. While my home will never be listed on any tour and will probably sell for around what I originally paid, the remodel more than paid for itself in improved resale and quality of living. Again I avoided taking a loan — why pay to borrow when I can loan to myself interest-free? — and again, I worked obscene amounts of overtime.
Towards the end of last year I accepted a promotion at work. While I love my job and my work environment, the loss of available overtime meant that even after the $5,000 annual raise, I was still seeing a net pay decrease of about $10,000 for the year. But given the projects I work on now and the toys I get to play with, my job is well worth the effective pay drop. So when the time came to finish out the remodeling this year, I decided to once again draw money from savings, knowing that it would simply take a little longer to pay back.
And for this, I’m being punished.
You see, I’m one of the lucky ones. I still have money in savings. I can afford to go about two and a half months without any change in my lifestyle. I can strip my budget down to the bone, eat Karns sandwich spread for 3 meals a day, and probably stretch it out to four months. But not everybody is in my shoes. Some people, through no fault of their own, simply don’t have savings set aside. Maybe they already spent it on emergency medical care for their children. Maybe they spent it on college to better themselves. Maybe their car just broke down, and they did the financially-responsible thing by paying cash for a replacement. Whatever the reason, a lot of my fellow employees simply aren’t going to have any money.
I’m sure there are employees among us who just don’t know how to — or choose not to — save. Whether they’re the majority or the minority or somewhere in-between is beyond the scope of this blog. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.
You shouldn’t have to save up just in case your employer stops paying you. If you’re an independent contractor whose workload varies, sure — keeping savings on hand is critical. But unless you work for Discount Donny’s Used Car-O-Rama, the last contingency you should have to prepare for is your employer deciding it doesn’t feel like sending you paychecks anymore.
My employer hasn’t gone out of business. We’re not bankrupt. We haven’t suddenly incurred some major, unforeseen expenses. And although our revenue stream shrank, it didn’t go away.
I generally avoid political discussions on here for a variety of reasons. Today I’m going to step on that line. If you choose to comment, do me a favor and avoid derailing this into a “Republicans vs Democrats” thread. You see, politicians love to throw around phrases like “fiscal responsibility” and “personal accountability”. It’s not just politicians, really — armchair political commentators love to subtly accuse anyone in distress to “take some responsibility” or “be accountable”. “Why didn’t you put anything in savings,” they smugly ask.
What reveals these people as trolls is that they never bother to ask the same of corporations or the government.
Our governor and every member of our legislature share equal blame in our current situation. For one to accuse the other of a failure to compromise reveals a strong misunderstanding of what the word “compromise” means. Everyone involved wants their own personal ideals upheld unconditionally, and is willing to throw away a few unimportant sticking points as long as the other side makes concessions on THEIR personal ideals.
Where is THEIR responsibility? Where is THEIR accountability?
Call your legislator today. Use sites like Project Vote Smart to look up your elected officials’ contact information. If they aren’t working, ask why. Be polite, but persistent. Ask the poor soul who answers the phone why your legislator felt it was appropriate to take the day off. If the only time you can call is 4:30 in the morning, ask why they aren’t working. Ask what gives them the right to take your paycheck away. Or if you’re not a state employee, ask what gives them the right to fail to get the budget passed on time — again. Do not accept any answer that even vaguely resembles “we are working tirelessly to resolve your concerns”. Be firm and respectful. If you don’t get the answers you want, call back.
The legislators are OUR employees. They work for us. We hired them. And Pennsylvania is an at-will state.
There was an episode in season five of The West Wing (“Shutdown”) which seems strangely prophetic and relevant to these circumstances. In the episode, the federal government is shut down over a budget impasse caused by — naturally — a standoff between congressional Republicans and Democrats. Frustrated by the deadlock, President Bartlett and his staff break protocol, march up the hill, and attempt to meet with the opposing party. This clip doesn’t show it, but in the end, all of the political staging and trickery backfires horribly. Watch the clip, and then ask yourself: What, exactly, would be so bad about our legislators and governor going in session and refusing to leave until the budget was passed?