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Comparing Wis., Minn. public employment benefits

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Wisconsin protest
Protestors of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers pack the rotunda at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011.
AP Photo/Andy Manis

If you're wondering what sparked the controversy in Wisconsin about proposed changes to the state's labor law and public employee compensation, it helps to look at the numbers as they are now.

The state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau said in a report last month that state and local governments don't just match or merely contribute to the pensions of Wisconsin public employees, they pay more than 99 percent of annual cost.

Gov. Scott Walker wants to scale that back in Wisconsin. He's calling for employee contributions to rise from less than 1 percent of their earnings to nearly 6 percent.

On this side of the border, state employees already pay nearly that, said Jennifer Munt, spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents about 20,000 state employees.

"In Minnesota, public employees pay 5 percent of their income towards their pension. The average pension for AFSCME state employees is $13,000 a year.

That's currently a 50-50 match for the Minnesota State Retirement System. 

Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, another large state public employee union in Minnesota, said those contributions are defined by law -- not in contract talks. He said eliminating collective bargaining, as Wisconsin is considering, wouldn't change that.

"If anybody here in Minnesota thinks that would generate savings," he said, "it would not."

Minnesota teachers have a similar deal. They contribute 5.5 percent of their pay to their pensions, which is matched by their districts. That's scheduled to rise to 6 percent in July and 7.5 percent by 2014.

Gov. Walker would also require public employees there to contribute more for their health insurance, to nearly 13 percent of their premium cost.

It's hard to compare directly, since the benefits are a key factor in the cost of health insurance. But in Minnesota, AFSME and MAPE have bargained to pay 15 percent of a family plan for their employees. The state picks up the rest, with a $3,800 out-of-pocket limit.

And just as in Wisconsin, teachers in Minnesota bargain their health insurance locally, and it varies widely. In some places in Minnesota, like small rural districts, employee contributions can amount to half of take home pay. 

That's what it used to be like for 6th grade teacher Chad Atherton, from the Waterville-Elysian-Morristown district.

"Actually it was about 60 percent. I mean, it was good coverage," he said, "but obviously, I was paying for it."

He moved his wife and family of six onto a plan with a deductible at Immanuel St. Joseph's hospital, where his wife works.

Lawmakers say Minnesota doesn't have the kind of benefit issues that Wisconsin has.

Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, is chair of the Senate's state government committee.

"Here, we have a pretty good balance right now. So I think we're different from that," he said.

But lawmakers at the Capitol have been talking about statutory changes to public employment this session. Specifically, they've proposed pay freezes for teachers and paring the state workforce by 15 percent.

Parry says he and other Republicans would like the state to operate more like the private sector with pensions and other benefits.

"I would like to see the citizens, which is the state, be put in a position where they can decide what they're going match, if they're going to match, based on the surplus in the state's coffers," he said.

There have been bills introduced in the House this year attempting to change Minnesota to a right-to-work state, which would all but eliminate unions' ability to organize. 

So far neither bill has made any progress in the House.

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You can read an update to this story and a comparison of wages from Tim Nelson on Capitol View.