The Chief
April 12, 2002

City's Tune: Do You Know the Pay in San Jose?

City: What Cop Shortage?

By Richard Steier

In a memorandum designed to counter the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association's argument that without a substantial pay raise for Police Officers, the NYPD faces a wave of departures, city officials have essentially asked, "What wave are you talking about?"

The 120-page memo from the Office of Labor Relations submitted to the three-man arbitration panel glides right past the union's main point - that city cops are vastly underpaid not only in comparison to Nassau and Suffolk counties but when measured against Newark, nobody's idea of an economic oasis.

Nassau went broke overpaying its cops, Suffolk doesn't hire enough officers to worry about, and no one who's ever worn NYPD blue takes it off to ride a radio car in Newark, OLR argues.

A Convenient Omission

If city cops are not well-paid compared to the suburbs, they more than hold their own alongside cops in other large cities, the memo contends, although it conveniently omits a comparison of standards of living in New York, and, say, Baltimore or El Paso.

But the heart of the matter, the memo proclaims, is the longstanding ties between raises for cops and other city employees, most notably other uniformed workers, and the way that those ties have guided previous arbitration panels once a bargaining pattern has been set.

The one conspicuous exception to those patterns over the past three decades, the city noted in the memorandum, involved Registered Nurses 14 years ago. But the Koch administration's decision to grant the nurses raises substantially beyond the city pattern of roughly 17 percent over three years - by the PBA's account, a 74-percent raise - was based on a nationwide nursing shortage that made RN's such a valuable commodity that the low salaries paid by the Health and Hospitals Corporation led to the departure of 42 percent of its first-year RN's between March 1987 and March 1988. The overall attrition rate at HHC for RN's during that period, the memo noted, was nearly 25 percent.

"In this situation," the memo stated, "the compelling and unique circumstances were the dire recruitment and retention problems - problems that do not exist for the PBA today."

By the city's reckoning, there is no real attrition problem in the rank of Police Officers.

PBA President Pat Lynch may point to 72 officers who quit to join the Port Authority Police last month as a stunning example of how low salaries have cancelled out the prestige of working for arguably the world's most famous police department.

The city counters with raw numbers: an attrition rate among Police Officers of just 4.4 percent from 1998 through 2001. Even last year, when that rate was 6.6 percent in the entry-level rank, it was lower than for NYPD Captains, who had a 9.5-percent departure rate, as well as for officers in the Sanitation Department (8.9 Percent), Correction Captains (8.8 percent), and Sanitation Workers (7 percent).

Those numbers simply underscore the truth of George Bernard Shaw's line about statistics being the third major category of lies.

The Pension Factor

The city memo leaves out two salient facts. A far greater percentage of superior officers in any uniformed department are going to be eligible to collect full pension than Police Officers, meaning their retirement rates are bound to be higher. And each of those employees groups is represented by a union that reached contract terms last year, meaning those employees who retired were able to have their pension allowances set based on pay raises that the PBA is still pursuing in this arbitration.

Retirement-eligibility's importance in attrition is the reason the departure rate for the NYPD last year was more that double what it was in the rank of Police Officer, even through those at the entry level make up over 60 percent of the uniformed force. And it won't be until raises for the 2000-2001 round of bargaining that have already been obtained by most uniformed employees are implemented for Police Officers that a comparable situation will exist for measuring attrition in that job compared to other uniformed posts.

The city memo makes the questionable claim that the NYPD has not experienced problems filling its last couple of classes, although the number of seats in both were scaled back and the dropout rate at the Police Academy has more than doubled in recent years. And then, immediately after stating there is no shortage of qualified candidates, the memo hedges, ".to the extent that the NYPD has been faced with staffing challenges, they are attributable to realities that have nothing to do with police officer salary levels, such as an extremely tight labor market that resulted in recruitment challenges for every employer."

Have to Pay the Price

By recruitment challenges, presumable OLR officials mean it was hard to fill jobs unless you paid competitive salaries in the days when job opportunities abounded.

The second drawback to recruitment mentioned in the memo was "the unfortunate impact on the public perception of police officers that inevitable flowed from episodes such as those involving Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo." That perception, it suggested, has changed dramatically in the wake of cops' heroic rescue efforts during the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

That claim appears to be borne out by the increased recruitment figures for the upcoming Police Officer exam. It remains to be seen whether higher numbers will produce a greater number of eligible candidates, and how long the candidates bask in the glow surrounding the NYPD once the current dollars and cents realities of the job begin to sink in.

The city memo is signed by three top OLR officials, including Commissioner Jim Hanley, who has successfully advanced many of the same arguments in two previous PBA arbitrations - one for the Dinkins administration in 1991, the other for the Giuliani administration in 1997.

In each of those cases, PBA representatives leaned heavily on the disparity between cops' salaries in the city and those paid to officers in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Mr. Hanley countered back then that a variety of circumstances, from a higher tax base in the suburbs to fund police pay to the proportionally greater social service obligations the city had make this an inapt comparison. Essentially, he argued, it was unrealistic to believe the city could match the compensation paid by the neighboring suburbs.

Nassau Tightens Up

This time around, that argument is buttressed by Nassau's extreme financial problems, the new Nassau County Executive, Thomas R. Suozzi is among those who believe the county's credit rating fell into the Atlantic Ocean in no small part because of past generosity to the police unions. He last week proposed freezing pay for Nassau County cops for the next three years as part of a plan that also includes a sizable property tax hike and a cut of 1,200 county jobs.

One of Mr. Suozzi's selling points that police compensation is too high in Nassau is the fact that the average Police Officer there made $101,000 last year once overtime and other differentials were included. But even with all the extras stripped away, it's easy to see why Mr. Hanley wants no part of a comparison with that county: the maximum base pay is $73,859, slightly more that 50 percent better than the $49,023 paid to NYPD cops. It's true that Nassau cops must work seven years to reach top pay, compared to five years for city cops, but the $68,662 paid to Nassau cops with five years on the job is still 40 percent higher than the city maximum.

For this arbitration, the PBA's bargaining counsel, Bob Linn - a former chief negotiator for the Koch administration - built his case not on the gap between NYPD cops and officers in Long Island, but the contention that, based on hourly compensation, cops in Newark were doing far better that New York's Finest.

The city memorandum treats that claim as an irrelevancy, stating that no cop has ever left the NYPD to join the Newark force. It also cites the relatively low number of officers who have left over the past five years to join either the Nassau or Suffolk P.D.s, which is partly a consequence of those counties having hiring freezes in effect for about half that period.

Playing the Top 20

The proper basis for comparison, the memo contended, is how officers in the 20 largest cities besides New York are compensated. In that regard, it noted, direct compensation per hour worked for veteran cops here ranks between third and fifth on the list of 21 cities, depending on whether officers with five, 10, 15 or 20 years' service are being considered.

For example, city cops with five years on the job receive $31.20 per hour in direct compensation, ranking them behind San Francisco ($36.08) and San Jose (34.80), but ahead of the 18 other cities, including Los Angeles (30.75) and Chicago (29.93). Hourly compensation for 10-year vets is exceeded only in San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles; for 15 - and 20-year vets, only those three cities and Chicago pay better.

There are two problems with such comparisons. One is that, according to one source, who asked not to be named, the city wildly inflates its pension costs to make Police Officer compensation look more competitive than it is.

The other is the fact that cities which trail New York such as Jacksonville, Milwaukee, El Paso and Detroit have considerable lower standards of living, meaning officers don't need to earn nearly as much to afford a house or cover day-to-day expenses. When cost of living enters the picture, Newark and, for that matter, Nassau and Suffolk, are much fairer benchmarks.

Weighed against the larger cities, using the Bloomberg administration's own statistics it is evident that city cops are getting the wrong end of the stick. The OLR memo stated that if new officers do poorly in comparison with their counterparts in other cities - ranking 10th among the 21 largest - it is a consequence of the PBA's past practice of shifting money away from the low end of the experience scale to take care of veteran union members.

Doesn't Hold Up in Frisco

If that were the primary reason for the disparity among rookies, then why does San Francisco pay new cops 50 percent more than the city does while also compensating 15-year veterans at a rate that's 14 percent above what's given NYPD cops with the same tenure?

The holes in the city's case on comparability explain why twice as much of Mr. Hanley's memo - just over half the document - is devoted to the already-established municipal contract patterns for this round of bargaining and the importance of maintaining them.

He pointed to more than 100 years of parity between Police Officers and Firefighters when it comes to maximum salary and close to four decades of a "web" of salary relationships between the PBA and other uniformed unions.

He cited the city's current fiscal problems, coupled with the pattern established for uniformed unions last summer by a contract ratified by 10 of them - one notable exception being the Uniformed Firefighters' Association, which signed off on the deal but has yet to put it to a ratification vote. If anything, Mr. Hanley said, a case could be made for treating the PBA less generously, given how the city's fiscal fortunes plummeted since that deal was reached in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

"In these circumstances, it would be irresponsible, for the City to agree to wage increases for PBA-represented employees in excess of the uniformed pattern," he stated. ".the pattern cannot be trifled with; the stakes are simply too high and the potential impact on the public too damaging."

He described pattern bargaining as "the cornerstone of stable labor relations between the city and the municipal unions.

Unions like the PBA regard pattern bargaining, however, as more millstone than cornerstone, Mr. Lynch and his predecessors have argued that the city has used arbitrators' reluctance to deviate from an established pattern to great advantage by ducking negotiations with unions seeking unusually large wage hikes in order to strike a deal with another union whose goals are less ambitious. Once that union is under contract, the pattern can be used against the unions with the stronger cases

Mr. Hanley more than once has lamented the danger from the other direction: a disregard of the pattern by an arbitration panel during the late 1960's began leapfrogging by police and fire unions that resulted in the city paying hundreds of millions of dollars more than it should have had to simply to re-establish the salary relationships that were disrupted.

Punishes Initiative

Such leap-frogging is inevitable, he argued in the memo, if arbitrators show that a pattern can be ignored even without extraordinary circumstances involved. And tossing aside a pattern has the effect of punishing whichever union leader is intrepid enough to make the first deal of a bargaining round while rewarding those who stand on the sidelines.

In the abstract, there is merit to both sides' arguments. The PBA profited from sitting back during the 1980s because of its close relationship with Mayor Ed Koch, then did even better on the one occasion that it took the lead among uniformed unions by carving out a deal that included benefits the rest of them couldn't win without making extra givebacks.

Once Mr. Koch left office and the union dealt with less-sympathetic Mayors, it found itself hamstrung by Mr. Hanley's ability to cut earlier deals with unions whose needs were not as pressing as the PBA's.

Mr. Lynch came into this bargaining round convinced that the pendulum had swung back in the PBA's favor when one of his predecessors won state approval of a bill that placed the union under the jurisdiction of the Public Employment Relations Board for contract arbitrators. The theory was that PERB arbitrators would give greater weight to compensation for cops statewide than had the city Board of Collective Bargaining, which was believed to place more emphasis on municipal bargaining patterns.

It remains to be seen whether that difference comes into play. The criteria used in different jurisdiction often mean less than the one immutable law of arbitration: its practitioners like to work.

Nassau's Winks and Nods

Many of the generous contracts won by the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association came through the arbitration process. It wasn't that the union's negotiators were that much more persuasive than those working for the county; the close ties between the union and the county Republican Party created a climate in which cops got favorable treatment through the back door. Politically, Republican County Executives were wary of being viewed as openly giving away the store; it was more palatable to make it known to an arbitration panel that the award needn't be the most cost-effective deal possible.

That is unlikely to happen in the PBA case, where the ripple effect would be much greater if there were any deviation from the basic cost of the pattern set by the Uniformed Forces Coalition.

The PBA in its arbitration case has sought raises of more than 21 percent over two years and the city had countered by offering 9 percent for the same period (the 10 percent in wage hikes won by other uniformed unions are under a 30-month contract). But the panel could come far closer to the city number than the PBA's - say two 6-percent raises over the 24-month period - and still hand the union a significant victory and the Bloomberg administration a serious headache.

Chairman the Key

Two members of the panel were appointed by the respective parties - Ronald Dunn by the PBA and Gary Dellaverson by the city - and can be expected to give heavy weight to the arguments of the side that picked them. The head of the panel, Dana E. Eischen, who in essence will cast the deciding vote on the award, is from the Syracuse area. To some extent, that insulates him from pressure to give extra weight to the city's case lest it shut him out of future work. But arbitrators depend on their reputation for neutrality. The fact that employers usually are involved in more cases than individual unions means there's a greater risk to making decisions that benefit a union than in rulings that are seen as victories for management.

And so the PBA award may pivot less on the strength of the respective arguments of the two sides than on how willing Mr. Eischen is to step away from the safety of the pattern if he believes it can be justified.