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Column In comparison to public sector workers in the US, Irish frontline workers are poorly paid

New recruits to frontline services in Boston can be paid three times more than what the Irish government has sought to establish as the new starting salary for public service workers. Larry Donnelly discusses the reasons for the disparity in salaries.

THE RECENTLY NEGOTIATED Croke Park II agreement has further pain in store for all of us who work in the public sector. While commentators are right when they point out that we, at least, enjoy a greater degree of job security than private sector workers, there is no doubting that our pay packets have taken some serious hits over the past several years.

The group that may be most severely impacted by the details of the new agreement is frontline workers – including, though not limited to, gardaí, firemen and nurses. Hearing these details and taking note of the widespread anger in their ranks in the wake of Croke Park II, as well as gauging the reaction of nurses and nursing students to the just reset €22,000 starting salary for newly-qualified nurses, got me thinking about their counterparts on the frontline in my home city of Boston.

Irish-American workers

On the surface, there are strong connections between frontline workers in the two countries. Indeed, the archetypal Irish cop in the US, famously described in the oft-heard ballad, “The Streets of New York,” is not a mythical figure. Still today, substantial numbers of Boston’s policemen and women, fire fighters and nurses are Irish-Americans.

Yet to say that they inhabit two quite different worlds on opposite sides of the Atlantic is an understatement.  New recruits to An Garda Síochána earn approximately €25,000; new Boston police officers earn almost $50,000 (€38,432). New full-time firemen in Ireland earn around €25,000; new Boston fire fighters make about $60,000 (€46,118). Newly qualified nurses in Boston make two to three times what the government has sought to establish as the new starting salary for Irish nurses.

And the disparity only increases with seniority. In 2012, 50 per cent of Boston police officers and 75 per cent of Boston fire fighters made in excess of $100,000 (€76,864).  Not many earn six figure salaries here in Ireland. Experienced nurses in Boston hospitals typically make $80,000 (€61,491) and more.

Disparity in salaries – why?

Why is there such disparity between the salaries paid to frontline workers in Boston and in Ireland?  Well, as ever, context is important.

First, frontline workers in Boston are among the most well paid in the US. By some estimates, they are the best paid. That reflects the very high cost of living in the city and the northeast US more generally. Second, public employee unions are extremely powerful in Boston. Any politician who dared to suggest a single pay cut for cops or fire fighters – never mind a series of pay cuts and other changes to employment conditions as successive governments have pushed for here – would be a dead man or woman walking.

Third, frontline workers in Boston tend to work longer hours than they do in Ireland. Their high salaries are usually the result of substantial overtime. Police officers also benefit from paid “details” (ie, all public works projects and major event in the city require the presence of at least one police officer) and from undertaking further courses of study for which they receive pay increases. Fourth, it can be reasonably argued, particularly in the case of police officers, that there is a level of danger and risk that inheres in working on the frontline in a large American city that warrants better compensation.

Living costs and overtime

On the other hand, the cost of living in Ireland, and especially in Dublin where a large percentage of Ireland’s frontline workers are based, is likewise very high. And there’s no doubt that policing certain areas of Dublin and other Irish cities does present dangers. Moreover, those on the frontline in Ireland do work hard, and most would probably work additional overtime if they could. As for the strength of the unions representing frontline workers here, the days, weeks and elections ahead will tell the tale.

In the end, I can’t fully account for the extraordinary pay disparity between frontline workers in Boston and in Ireland. But I do wonder if the most painful aspect of pay cuts for Ireland’s frontline workers is their sense that these measures might somehow reflect the esteem (or lack thereof) in which they are held by society. I also wonder if the lower salaries and different conditions of employment that have resulted from the Croke Park agreements will be impediments to attracting the “best and brightest” to work on the frontline in future.

For my part, if I was one of the not insignificant number of young Irish people in possession of a US passport and I wanted a career in policing, fire protection or nursing, I’d be pricing Aer Lingus flights to Boston.

Larry Donnelly is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with

Read: Taoiseach says Croke Park proposals do not target frontline workers>

Read: ‘I have given as much as I can’ – garda speaks out against pay cuts>

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