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States taking hard look at compensation

ALBANY -- A prosecutor in California collects $118,000 in unused sick days. A police officer in New York rings up $125,000 in overtime the year before retiring and "spikes" his pension payments. An Ohio school superintendent is hired for the same job from which he just retired and takes in more than $100,000 annually in salary and pension.

The headlines feed a stereotype of fat-cat public workers with the kind of cushy benefits that most private-sector workers can only dream about. With the economy still wobbly, governors are looking hard at employee pay and benefits, and taxpayers are asking whether state and local governments can remain so generous to public workers.

The issue has risen to national prominence as Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have sought not only to make public employees pay more for their benefits but also prohibit many aspects of collective bargaining for the unions that represent them.

Just how accurate is the portrayal of lavish compensation and benefits for public workers? Researchers disagree over whether public workers in different states do better when it comes to the larger picture of total compensation -- that is, earnings plus benefits.

But there's little debate that when it comes to benefits alone, it's better on the public side.

"Because of the economic problems, we've suddenly hit upon the fact that public workers have better benefits. But they've always had them, even previous to collective bargaining. That was one of the reasons people took a government job," said Jeffrey Keefe, a labor and employment-relations associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who argues that state and local workers are generally undercompensated.

The workers cashing in on excessive benefits are not the norm, and average annual benefits for the nation's rank-and-file public workforce are relatively modest.

Public safety employees, who risk their lives or can be seriously injured on the job, can make a persuasive argument for top-notch benefits. It's one reason Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker exempted them from his crackdown on public employee unions.

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