EDITOR’S CORNER: County employee wage solution requires thinking outside the box
(Opinion by Miles Smith, LPR editor. Published in the 8/31/18 Lockhart Post-Register)
It’s well known that the annual salary of a print journalist isn’t among the highest in the world for a field in which one usually holds a bachelor’s degree or higher.
When I’ve been approached by realtors (who generally swarm like piranhas when they learn you’ve recently begun working in the community they serve), I’m usually sent an e-brochure with some of the nicest abandoned cardboard boxes in central Texas once I tell them how much money I can spend on housing.
Sadly, I have to wait for the discarded electronics boxes that have drifted near puddles to blow closer to highways or into dry fields.
Waterfront property is just too cost prohibitive.
This is to say I feel the pain of county employees who found themselves breaking into a cold sweat when they learned their annual salaries would be disbursed in 26 payments rather than 24. Any way you slice it, suddenly receiving a smaller paycheck is at best suboptimal when every penny in your monthly budget is already accounted for.
I can only imagine what a nightmare hearing that news was for single parents or parents in one-income households. If you’ve got children and you’re covering expenses on your own, this isn’t a question of ordering fewer lattes or skipping brunch with friends once in awhile. You’ve got dependents to care for who can run up the bill with unexpected heath problems or other needs at a moment’s notice.
It looks like help might be on the way. Discussed in commissioners court on Monday was a 3.8 percent raise across the board that’s expected to offset the pinch that’s felt by people living paycheck to paycheck who will suddenly be dealing with pay periods that contain fewer days.
Except that’s apparently not enough to make up for the deficit an employee will usually encounter in a typical two-paycheck month.
“Annually, it is still a loss from the previous year,” Caldwell District Clerk Tina Morgan Freeman said. “An employee’s W-2 from last year will be less than it was last year. And they will be $100 short until May.”
Ouch. $100 doesn’t seem like a lot. But it might if you have conceivably as much as $43 in your checking account, assuming the rent check floats for a couple of days.
Commissioner Eddie Moses gets it, noting that the banks don’t take kindly to you asking them if you can catch up with them in May.
The average salary that keeps coming up in discussions at county court, just for an example, seems to be $30,000.
Fact is, that’s just not a lot of money. It goes quickly in a three-county area where there are seldom decent living accommodations for under $1,000 a month.
Divided by 12, $30,000 works out to $2,500 a month before tax.
Except – whoops – you can’t really plan your budget based on that if you’re starting from scratch. Once Uncle Sam takes his bite, that $2,500 a month looks a lot more like $2,000 a month.
And on a typical month where there are only two Friday paydays, that now looks more like $1,800.
Want health insurance? Of course you do. That’s at least another $150 or so. So let’s say $1,650 a month is what you’re working with for rent and other bills.
Almost leaves enough for creature comforts like air conditioning and groceries, assuming you don’t actually need to use the health insurance or can employ a mode of transportation that doesn’t involve wheels and an engine.
So where am I going with this? Mainly just that it grates on me when I hear business owners, department heads and elected officials talk about how 26 pay periods still equals the same salary as 24 pay periods. That’s easy to say if you’ve got a nice savings account or some investments that are doing well or if you’re not dealing with the struggle of hoping that credit card’s billing cycle and your every-two-week paycheck line up right.
Many people will likely find themselves looking ahead on their calendar to one of the two magic months that includes three paydays. If you can hang on that long, stuff generally straightens itself out.
Deputy Chief Mike Lane understands the struggle. He implored commissioners one by one on Monday to remember that they’d promised to make sure no employee was suddenly faced with a smaller paycheck, and urged them to reexamine that proposed increase and add to it if necessary.
I hope they’ll keep that promise as they consider what to do with the coming year’s budget, which is expected to reflect more than $1.2 million in additional revenue generated from property taxes. A hundred bucks or so can be the difference between making rent and being perpetually behind on your bills.
And there are only so many cardboard boxes that regularly appear in an MLS search.