A subcommittee of the Virginia FOIA Council is still studying what to do with Sen. Steve Newman’s bill introduced in 2011 and sent to the council for study. As originally drafted, the bill would prohibit the name of a public employee to be released in connection with that employee’s salary data.
In Virginia, salary data and names are required to be disclosed. Salary is not a personnel issue, in other words. The requirement also says that it does not apply to anyone making under $10,000.
The subcommittee has been looking at two issues: whether names and salary data should be separated, and whether the minimum salary amount should be raised, perhaps to reflect the increased cost of living since the $10,000 minimum was added to the law in 1978.
VCOG’s summer intern — Michael Broome, a law student at UVa — surveyed all 50 states to find out how they handled salary data disclosure. Here are his main findings:
- All but 1 state (Hawaii) has some mechanism for disclosing specific salaries.
- Only 3 states (Hawaii, South Carolina and Virginia) limit disclosure by salary amount
- No state prohibits the name from being released
And here’s something else: both California and Ohio governments have recently put salary databases — with names — online to be searched by the public. The Ohio database crashed the first day it went live because so many people logged in to take a look.
So, in a time when nearly every single state in the country is giving out salary data of named individuals, without regard to salary amount, and in a time when states are starting to proactively put this information out there, Virginia is contemplating making this information less available.
In discussions and comments made about this issue, no one — NO ONE — has denied that the public has a right to know how much public employees make. They are being paid with taxpayer dollars, and as public servants they are doing work that we are requiring of them.
Driving this issue, then, is embarrassment. More specifically, the embarrassment that supposedly comes when a person’s salary information is published online.
Arguments have been raised that publishing salaries causes morale or management problems in government agencies. Examples have been given of how disheartening it is to people to realize that the lump on the log in the cubicle next to you is getting paid more than you do, even though you’re always having to pick up his slack.
I couldn’t agree more. That is, I’d be upset, too.
But the answer isn’t to cut off access to the information that produces the hurt. The answer is to pay people what they deserve to be paid. Fairly. Equitably. In a non-discriminatory manner based on qualifications, skills, performance, etc.
If you cut off access to salary data, you cut off protection for public employees. Disclosure helps ensure fairness within an agency or governmental unit, and it helps shape salary ranges from locality to locality or state to state when employees are researching jobs or considering offers of employment.
If you cut off access because of embarrassment, then you also cut off access to police blotters or court dockets because people might be embarrassed about their recent judicial run-ins. You cut off access to names and amounts of political contributions because you’re embarrassed to be associated with a disreputable public official.
Embarrassment is extremely subjective. One person’s embarrassment is another person’s day-in-the life moment. Additionally, there are people who are working for smaller amounts because they don’t need the money — they want to work but they have another source of income. Maybe someone has a trust fund. Maybe someone lives extremely frugally. We don’t know.
I make $51,000/year. Should I be embarrassed based on my education level (I have a law degree)? Or should my employer be embarrassed that they pay me too much? That’s a fair debate, and one that public employees and the general public should be able to have. They can’t have it without knowing how much employees earn.
So here’s what I’d recommend to the FOIA Council subcommittee: Don’t block access to the names of employees. And don’t up the statutory salary limit.
I’m not embarrassed to say so.