Editorial: For Westmoreland workers, a confusing new math on raises

Percentages can be confusing things.

They might seem simple at first blush. A penny is just 1% of a dollar. How hard is that to figure out?

But anyone who has tried to figure out exactly how much their $100,000 house will cost over the lifetime of a mortgage and exactly what compounded interest means can testify that once you start juggling money, percentages can be what trips you up.

So it isn’t really surprising to find that a few percentage points are causing some problems for Westmoreland County Controller Jeffrey Balzer.

Balzer recently came out with questions about the county’s new labor contract with the Westmoreland County Court Related Employees Association, which represents about 250 county workers. The contract was ratified in April and governs terms of work for members for four years.

The problem isn’t that the contract gives the employees average raises of 2.2% to 2.5%. It’s that Balzer is seeing the average raises actually translate to nearly 10%. You don’t have to be a math whiz to notice a 7.5% to 7.8% difference in those figures.

And that is just in 2021. The raises do change to 2.4% in 2022, go up to 4.5% in 2023 and end at 2.4% in 2024. Maybe the county commissioners were averaging those numbers across the life of the contract when they made the announcement in April? No, that doesn’t work. Do the math, and you get an average of 4.825% over the four years.

Does that matter that much? What’s a difference of 2.625% between friends? Well, it’s a lot when it’s between taxpayers and elected officials and government employees.

A 2.2% raise on a $30,000 salary is $660, but 10% is $3,000. That’s a significant difference — a month’s pay kind of difference.

And while it might seem like a problem with this would just be unfair to the taxpayers footing the bill, it also is unfair to the employees. If there is a problem with the paychecks that have been going out for the past four months and that number is wrong, it’s likely that the county is going to ask for the money back. That’s the same kind of problem the state has been going through with unemployment overpayments going back years.

It would be hard to hand over a month’s pay because of a mistake that wasn’t your fault. It would be just as hard to see the raise you earned disappear in incremental paybacks of the money if it was taken back over time.

Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe it isn’t a mistake so much as a misstatement by commissioners. Maybe the math isn’t wrong on the paychecks but was in the commissioners’ announcement. It’s hard to tell.

But the commissioners, having been alerted by Balzer, are doing the right thing by initiating a review, as confirmed by solicitor Melissa Guiddy.

What is clear is that double-checking the math before announcements are made or checks are cut would be a good idea.

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