Labor Day gift to taxpayers from Gallup: 71% of public employees ‘not engaged’

Sam Waltz
Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

So, how would you feel if you could read the minds of the public sector employees — the people you hire as a taxpayer to take care of your public needs — and found that many hated their jobs, many resented serving you, and some really didn’t like you very much?

The thought occurs as we get ready to celebrate Labor Day 2016 on Sept. 5, not just as the unofficial end of summer, but for its intended purpose, the celebration of the American worker.

Labor Day is a creation of the trade unionist movement of the 1800s, the first Labor Day parade was held in 1887, and the federal government first made Labor Day an official holiday in 1894, more than 120 years ago.

On the eve of Labor Day this year, the Gallup organization — known for the quality of its research-based national polling — released a study that said that public employees, the people you and I hire with our tax dollars and fees to provide us services, really don’t like their jobs very much. Frankly, many of them hate their jobs and resent coming to work, according to Gallup.

Those findings disturb me a bit. I’m a registered Democrat, albeit obviously a “business Democrat,” and while I’m a social progressive, I’m a “small government Democrat,” too, well within the traditional concept of what it used to mean to be a D, before the political left took over the party.

My parents were pro-union — my mother was active in an NEA-affiliated teachers’ union in Illinois — and my first wife was a member of DSEA, Delaware’s teachers’ union.

Personally, while I’ve never worked in a union workplace, I’ve worked with some fine union people.

The late Pat Healey (IBEW electricians’ union) comes to mind. As does John Czerwinski (plumbers and fitters), Joe Durham (carpenters), Billy McCloskey (building trades), and, among my favorites, Sam Lathem, Delaware’s first big African-American union leader who piloted the AFL-CIO for years and years. Mike Begatto, who heads Delaware’s AFSCME for public employees, comes to mind as well.

Unions have brought all of us — union and non-union workers — many benefits. Union apprenticeship training programs are among some of the best around.

But the heart of the union appeal is built on exacerbating a distrust of management, an adversarial relationship that too often implies “we lose when you win.” And that adversarial context is tough to strip out once the bargaining is done. It undermines the attitudes of many employees when they come to work, and it exponentially increases the level of difficulty for management.

Jon Clifton, managing director of the Gallup organization, said last month that 71 percent of state and local government employees are not engaged at work, costing U.S. taxpayers billions and billions of dollars.

His finding is based on polling data from 2009-15, from which Gallup’s new “State of Local and State Government Workers’ Engagement” report shows current employee engagement and disengagement figures for the state and local governments in 43 states. Delaware is not included among those 43 states, presumably because the sample size was too small to reliably break out and report.

“One of the biggest opportunities that state and local government leaders have is to invest in the engagement of their employees. In fact, they can’t afford not to,” Clifton said. “Employee disengagement costs the U.S. economy roughly half a trillion dollars a year.”

“Gallup data show 29 percent of full-time state and local government employees are engaged at work. This includes police officers, firefighters, teachers, and city and state government officials. These engaged workers drive innovation and move their workplaces forward. The problem is that 71 percent of state and local government employees aren’t in jobs like this,” Clifton said.

“The findings illustrate the need for these governments to find strategies to help curb disengagement,” Clifton added. “Leaders have the chance to more effectively help government employees understand how they fit into the government’s mission, and what they can do to help the government achieve that mission faster.”

Clifton’s comments really are an indictment of senior and middle management in the public sector, not just the workers.

“The single biggest way to turn employee engagement around is with a great manager. Seventy percent of the variance in employee engagement across teams is just who you name manager. There might be a number of ways to boost employee morale, but getting the head coach right is critical,” Clifton said.

So, what can we as taxpayers, who are the customers of state and local government, do? It starts with building accountability, to question and demand from candidates their solutions to the issue when they present themselves to us this fall.

Click here to download and read the report on Gallup.com. “State of Local and State Government Workers’ Engagement in the U.S.” report is based on the results from Gallup’s measurement of employee engagement among more than 400,000 full-time workers in the United States, including nearly 61,000 full-time employees of state or local governments in 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

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