Commentary: The Other Side of Employee Morale

ffers-protest-2On Sunday, the Vanguard attempted to throw out, as food for thought as we go forward, the other side of the story on city manager compensation and concerns about employee morale.

There were some good responses to the issue by some of our readers.

To the idea that the employee groups have taken a huge financial hit while the public has gotten hit with only very meager sales tax increases, one reader responded, “Except of course we have been paying higher taxes all along to fund their excessively high compensation, particularly their outrageous benefits program. How much money have those benefits cost the taxpayers over the past two decades? In addition, we are now faced with $100′s of millions in greater taxes to cover the cost of infrastructure repair and maintenance because the City spent the money intended for those purposes on providing employees with even greater benefits.”

Another added, “Many of the ‘voters’ have suffered their own financial pain and have had their pay and benefits cut too. It’s been a sign of the times.”

They would later add, “Let them go if they have low morale and feel they can find something better. I’m sure the new employees will come in with a much better attitude.”

Yet another added, “A claim of low employee morale in the public sector is often heard, even in the best of economic times. The fact remains that, despite numerous studies to do so, measurement of workforce morale is elusive and has no agreed standard.”

Finally, to add one more, “I have interacted with many city staffers, and I can think of only one that was not happy, and that was because this individual was downgraded to the mailroom from operating video equipment, so the discontent expressed was perfectly understandable. The rest of the city staffers I have worked with, and there have been numerous ones, are extremely dedicated, highly satisfied with their jobs, and have a very positive attitude about getting things done. I honestly believe they were energized by CM Steve Pinkerton, who wanted the city to see possibilities, not ‘just say no’ to the pubic as happened with the previous city manager. So exactly who are these disgruntled employees the Vanguard is talking about?”

While I think these are good points, I do take a bit of issue with the last one. If I were to list out the names of specific employees I have heard from or about, I think people would be stunned. However, I do not believe that naming names serves a useful purpose and, in all fairness, that poster later agreed.

We can start with the easy ones, and there are whole classes of employees in the fire department, and in the DCEA and PASEA bargaining groups, that would fall into that category. However, I have heard increasingly about upper management, as well, and it will be very interesting to see who ends up leaving the city from the more prominent group of employees whose department we might notice (as opposed to many of the rank and file employees who work hard on a day to day basis in relative obscurity).

I should note at this point that, just because they have low morale or are disgruntled, it does not justify their feelings or even obligate the city to change course.

One problem I have is that I do not believe that a lot of these employee groups have a very good sense of just how bad or how precarious the city’s fiscal situation is.

We saw that play out during impasse with DCEA (twice) and the firefighters. The city during the last decade built up huge benefit packages and also increased salaries across the board. But, as we have noted many times, those benefits and salaries were built on unsustainable revenues. In addition to double-digit increases in property tax, we supplemented the revenue with $3 million from a 2004 sales tax measure.

Unlike this past sales tax measure, that one was largely largesse – the city feigned a need for the money to save parks, police and fire, but that money did not go into increased employees’ and city services.  It went into a $3 million increase in compensation to firefighters, and other money went to give other employee groups smaller but still sizable increases.

When the recession came, it shut off property tax as an engine for revenue growth and, as we have now argued many times, the city chose first to cut costs through attrition and furloughs before finally in 2012 getting serious about getting to the root of the problem.

The biggest cost, however, is largely unseen and is correctly pointed out by the reader above – and that is the city deferred monies that should have gone into infrastructure in the years they attempted to balance the books without serious cuts to compensation.

The result is a massive deferred maintenance bill coming due, not only on roads but parks and building infrastructure. That money will ultimately come from the voters, but it’s actually a double dip to the voters. First, the voters spent the money to build up compensation, now they’re spending money to bail out the city for failing to pay for infrastructure.

However, I continue to maintain that the voters themselves are not blameless in this process and instead believe that the voters were only too content to allow compensation and salaries to build in the last decade and did not come to a day of reckoning until it was too late and we were in the depths of recession.

Voters were actually warned multiple times, most recently in 2008, months before the collapse of the financial markets.

While I understand the inclination to simply let people go if they have low morale – and many undoubtedly will, I think it would be nice for city management to figure out who is an asset to the community and whom we can easily replace. That was part of the problem with the attrition – we lost good employees with the bad, and it is often the good employees who are most able to leave since they have more opportunities for new employment.

There is no easy answer to the issue of employee morale. There is also no doubt that the city has been horribly managed for at least the last 15 years – with few periods otherwise – and ironically, for the most part, the employees benefited mostly from that time. It is only now, when the chickens have come home to roost, that they realized the price they paid.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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33 Comments

  1. PhilColeman

    “One problem I have is that I do not believe that a lot of these employee groups have a very good sense of just how bad or how precarious the city’s fiscal situation is.”

    To a point I agree, but it’s more an issue of arrogance, not ignorance.

    The more prevalent sentiment is that MY work group is superior in service and need to the city, and work much harder, in comparison to the rest. Therefore, we have greater entitlement to maintaining or increasing our compensation. If you need to make cuts, look elsewhere or raise the revenue stream. That’s what you’re paid to do. The “you’re” in this instance being the city manager and city council.

    1. David Greenwald

      There is some of that. But I also think there’s a natural tendency that people who end up in an area of work, tend to believe their area is most important. I’m not sure that’s really arrogance.

    2. D.D.

      Phil, That sentiment was displayed at various times in all four state agencies where I worked for 34 years. And that sentiment is precisely why employee recognition programs can go awry. Every person in any organization contributes some good. If only certain employees are bestowed recognition, it implies other employees do not deserve recognition. The negativity and back stabbing will become worse, IMHO.
      Employees want to feel relevant and appreciated. And they want a living wage. It’s not that difficult to improve morale. First and foremost, give employees their dignity.

      1. hpierce

        D.D. The employee recognition in Davis, pre-2010, recognized each employee as they reached milestones…. 10 years service, 15, 20, etc. It also recognized “teams” of employees. Individual employees and teams chosen for ‘special’ recognition (not a BIG focus), were nominated by fellow employees, and these nominations were reviewed by another group of employees, some from Mgt, most not.

        Employee recognition events included picnics, including ‘pick up’ softball and other games, and employees got to interact with those across departmental lines. It’s not the employee recognition going awry, it was the sudden end to them, in the interest of saving money (pennies, in the grand scheme).

        Employee dignity? yeah, right. A common ‘sport’ of CC was to denigrate employees publicly if the employee’s professional opinion and recommendation didn’t mesh with the CC member’s world view. A classic was when one CC member asked a staff member for their “other opinion”, one that would mesh with the CC member’s desire (we’re not talking ‘thought-out alternatives’, we’re talking about expecting staff to kow-tow to the CC “line”).

        1. La pace sia con voi.

          I hope they were not required , just invited, to attend picnics on their own time? I had one state job where it was absolutely necessary for management to attend the dept. head’s holiday dinner at his home. His secretary even warned me my career would suffer if I didn’t attend. She even offered to babysit my newborn so that I could attend.! I did not attend because my baby was ill.

          After my kids were born, I started to resent “team building” activities that occurred after work and on weekends, because I wanted to decide how to spend my precious free time with my kids. Before kids, I really enjoyed them.

    3. South of Davis

      Phil wrote:

      > To a point I agree, but it’s more an issue of arrogance, not ignorance.

      I think it is a little of both…

      When you most of your friends and all of your co-workers are government employees with job security (in many cases almost impossible to get fired), the ability to retire early with a great pension (My Dad is almost 80 and still working as is my father in law who is still working in his 70’s since like most people with no pension they NEED to work until they die) and overall better than average pay (under 1% of public employees could make more in the private sector) it is easy to be “ignorant” that most Americans are having a real tough time.

      In Davis you are surrounded by not only well paid UC people but many private sector people (with advanced degrees from some of the best schools in America) who are doing real well. Like the public employees my kids are a little arrogant, but part of the reason that they feel we are “poor” and they “have a rough life” is that many of their friends (often with a Mom that makes $100K+ vs. a stay at home Mom) have nicer toys and go on more trips. I try and reduce this “ignorance” by taking the kids with us to do volunteer work so they learn that everyone’s Mom is not a Vet, UC Professor or Corporate Tax Attorney and many kids have a Mom who has a tough time buying food (and have never seen Dad)…

      1. La pace sia con voi.

        Agreed I raised two children in Davis on an income that many in Sacramento or Woodland would deem “comfortable”. In Davis, my kids were constantly doing without, compared to their friends. Just look at the cars in the parking lot at Davis High! The nicest ones often do not belong to our teachers!

    4. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      Chief PC: “The more prevalent sentiment is that MY work group is superior in service and need to the city, and work much harder, in comparison to the rest.”

      It would be illuminating if a poll were taken of a large number of workers to know for sure where morale stands, and where it is low, what the workers think is the cause.

      One thing I have gathered, from an admittedly unrepresentative selection of city workers who’ve told me of their unhappiness, is that “uncertainty” has driven down morale. One aspect of the uncertainty is whether their position is safe. That is, knowing the budget troubles, there are quite a few worried they will be laid off or their full-time job will become a part-time job. Another aspect I was told was paycheck uncertainty as a consequence of furloughs and (in at least one case) as a consequence of reduced cafeteria cash-outs.

      In human terms, my experience is that the sort of morale problems within the City of Davis are not terribly different from morale problems at private companies which are either failing or are in decline. As long as that is going on, it feels like you are on a sinking ship, and if you can, you’d be happy to find a new job. Of course, since Davis employees are generally overcompensated (and never could make so much in the private sector per hour for the same level of productivity), changing jobs is not so attractive for most, though for those near the end of their careers, retiring might be.

  2. Barack Palin

    “While I understand the inclination to simply let people go if they have low morale – and many undoubtedly will – but I think it would be nice for city management to figure out who is an asset to the community and who we can easily replace. That was part of the problem with the attrition, we lost good employees with the bad, and it is often the good employees most able to leave since they have more opportunities for new employment.”

    So what’s your answer? How do you plan on keeping the good employees who are an asset to the community? More pay? That goes against what the city is currently doing to bring down costs.

      1. La pace sia con voi.

        You don’t have to have all the answers, David. If you did, your writing would cease to be journalism and read more like an op ed. Keep up your good work.

  3. Tia Will

    Hi Phil

    “If you need to make cuts, look elsewhere or raise the revenue stream. That’s what you’re paid to do. The “you’re” in this instance being the city manager and city council.”

    Interesting perspective. Especially considering your choice of the word “arrogance”. While I believe that applies to the “look elsewhere” portion of your sentence, I also believe that there is truth in the second part of the statement “that is what you are paid to do”.

  4. Tia Will

    A different perspective on what it might mean to “just leave” and find “something better” if dissatisfied with one’s job or if asked to leave. While this may be a realistic option for the employee in their 30’s and 40’s, how many of you really believe that the prospects of finding an adequately compensated job in one’s 50’s are very rosy ? And by adequately compensated, I mean enough to stay above the poverty line for a full time worker. One of the reasons union’s exist in the first place is to prevent employers from deciding that they do not want a worker anymore within a few years of the individual qualifying for retirement.
    If all employers actually gave a darn about the well being of their employees, these kinds of protections would never have been needed in the first place. As Jeff is fond of saying, root causes matter. If everyone knew that they would have enough to live on, no one would have to “game the system” or try for ever increasing benefits, they would know that they would have enough.

  5. Anon

    I would not necessarily agree that voters are to blame. CM Bill Emlen and FBD Paul Navazio cooked up a scheme, whereby they dumped road repairs and other necessities into an “unmet need’ category and declared the budget “balanced”. In essence, they cooked the books and lied to the public using voodoo economics. When you mislead the public, how is that the voters fault? And frankly, the incivility between Councilmember Sue Greenwald and Mayor Asmundson became a huge distraction from the real issues, much as plastic bag bans, wood smoke ordinances and the like. The City Council itself wastes so much time on petty issues, and not enough on the real issues. And you wonder why the public gets confused or is not focused?

    1. Matt Williams

      CM Bill Emlen and FBD Paul Navazio cooked up a scheme, whereby they dumped road repairs and other necessities into an “unmet need’ category and declared the budget “balanced”. In essence, they cooked the books and lied to the public using voodoo economics.

      Anon, that is a pretty bold and sweeping accusation/indictment. Do you believe that Bill and Paul were acting on their own initiative?

      1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

        Matt, an “unmet needs” category in public agency accounting is standard. It meets the requirements of the GASB. Anon’s suggestion that it was “a scheme” is itself incorrect. I am sure that Paul Navazio, who was then the finance director, was acting within his professional bounds. (I doubt Bill Emlen had anything to do with how those ‘unmet needs’ were accounted for.)

        Where the politics came in–pointed to by Anon–was the characterization by Stephen Souza and Don Saylor, who were running for re-election, that the City’s budget was balanced. Even if the cash in was sufficient to match the cash out, the budget was not balanced because future liabilities (roads, pensions, retiree medical, etc.) were growing at a far faster rate than projected future revenues. In other words, shifting present needs into “unmet needs” inflated future costs without increasing future income.

    2. Barack Palin

      “the incivility between Councilmember Sue Greenwald and Mayor Asmundson became a huge distraction from the real issues, much as plastic bag bans, wood smoke ordinances and the like.”

      Totally agree, too much time wasted on fringe feel good issues.

    3. David Greenwald

      My view on blame is that it isn’t necessarily all or nothing. From that perspective, I would argue that the city council and city managers bear a huge amount of the blame for the problems. But if we had citizens who were more proactive and a newspaper that was scrutinizing, perhaps? 80-20?

      While the incivility between Sue and Ruth was a problem, the bigger problem was the 3-2 lock on council by the council majority because both Sue and Lamar were warning about problems. Lamar went as far to devise an alternative budget with assumptions that were markedly closer to the rosy reality of Navazio’s budget.

      Plastic Bag Bans and Wood Smoke ordinances took up a small percentage of the time. And while we might complain that it spends too much time on petty issues, the reality is that they had enough time spent on the budget pre-2010 to catch the problems, but they chose to believe the rosy numbers and so no amount of time would have made any difference.

  6. D.D.

    Re: labor unions: a ccoworker at one of my state jobs did not believe in union dues and constantly bad mouthed SEIU. Yet his flexible hours were 7:00 -4:00, Monday through Friday. His wife took four months maternity leave and was allowed extra time when his daughter was born several months premature. He had breaks every two hours, no time clock because he was an I.T. worker. He took long lunches and frequently was allowed to alter his work schedule to leave early to catch a round of golf with his ex law enforcement buddies. Yet he hated SEIU policies. Go figure.

    1. Frankly

      What – you can’t be smart enough to take advantage of the absurdity of goodies while you complain that it is wrong? According to liberals we don’t give enough to help the needy; yet liberals donate a smaller percentage of their income compared to conservatives. They also don’t pay more taxes than they have to even though they demand that we increase taxation.

      Your moral equivalency argument here lack any indication of objectivity.

  7. Barack Palin

    “They would later add, “Let them go if they have low morale and feel they can find something better. I’m sure the new employees will come in with a much better attitude.”

    “While I think these are good points”

    Thank you David.

  8. PhilColeman

    “If you don’t like it here, just Leave” does not work as a point of response or rebuttal. I caution managers and administrators to NEVER say this despite any provocation or temptation to do so. It only increases resentment and unrest, and further conveys the image that management does not care about the employee’s feelings.

    On the point of my use of the term “arrogance” to describe the isolated view of current government fiscal plight, I’ll accept the criticism that the term is too harsh. I’ll modify it to “parochial” or “provincial” to say that individual work groups limit their perspective to their own circumstance, and spend little time or thought to the plight of others competing for the same tax dollar.

  9. Michael Harrington

    It’s a mess, but going forward, I still think one more big cut off the City’s total comp, benefits packages are warranted before we give the City any more money, especially a parcel tax.

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