State and Local Employee Views on Their Jobs, Pay and Benefits

November 13, 2019

National Institute on Retirement Security

O ne of the key challenges before state and local government employers is the ability to compete when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees to perform crucial job functions that serve the public. There are many issues contributing to this public workforce challenge.

In recent years, state and local governments report that they continue to face steep challenges filling a wide array of positions, with policing, engineering, information technology, and emergency dispatch as the positions that are hardest to fill. And the challenge of maintaining a strong state and local workforce is not expected to ease.

A tool that both public and private sector employers utilize to attract and retain workers is their benefits package. Most state and local government employees are offered healthcare and retirement benefits. In 2019, retirement benefits were available to 91 percent of state and local government workers, including defined  benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) plans, and some 89 percent have access to medical care benefits. These benefits can be appealing for those seeking a career in state or local government and could position employers to be more competitive as compared to salaries in the private sector. But state and local government employers are not necessarily improving health and retirement benefits to address public sector workforce challenges. Instead, many jurisdictions have changed their health or retirement plans, shifting more risks and/or costs to employees.

Against this backdrop, the National Institute on Retirement Security commissioned a national public opinion survey to develop a deep understanding of state and local public employee sentiment regarding their job, pay and benefits. This report analyzes the sentiment across three key professions in state and local government and examines the views of Millennials working in the public sector. This research is intended to serve as a tool for policymakers and other stakeholders as they grapple with decisions about a public workforce that delivers important services to taxpayers, particularly at a time when the labor market is tight and there are growing expectations and demands on the public workforce.

Key Findings:
  • State and local employees place a high value on serving the public and their community, and are generally satisfied with their job despite high stress.
  • Benefits are among the most important job features for state and local employees.
  • State and local employees have mixed views on the competitiveness of their salary and compensation, but the  vast majority agree they could earn a higher salary in the private sector, and a pension factors into the  competitiveness of their compensation.
  • Benefits are viewed as a powerful recruitment and retention tool across state and local government professions. State and local government employees overwhelmingly have favorable views of pensions, with lasting retirement income and monthly checks the most important features.
  • Most public workers feel they will be financially secure in retirement, but the vast majority of state and local employees are highly concerned about cuts to retirement benefits and government officials underfunding of pension plans.
  • Cutting state and local employee benefits could drive them out of the public workforce.
  • State and local employees say that eliminating pensions has risks.
  • Millennials working in state and local government generally share the views of Baby Boomers and GenXers on their job, serving the public, pay, and benefits.

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