The New York Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs in discouraging fashion. They suffered key injuries, their high-priced hitters struggled, and they spent more than $200 million to do it. What would happen if the Yankees were forced to scale down their payroll and rebuild their team using the personnel policies of the New York City Public Schools?
Like New York’s public schools, this hypothetical Yankees team would be forced to use a “last-in, first-out” policy whereby a player’s seniority, not his performance or potential, would be the sole determinant of whether he kept his job. Many states and school districts across the country use seniority and seniority alone to make consequential personnel decisions—and, in fact, it’s enshrined in New York state law.
If the Yankees used seniority to cut their payroll, who would have to leave? Mostly young, promising players, and a lot of them. Because younger players, like younger teachers, earn less money than their more senior peers, the Yankees would have to lay off 37 percent of their team in order to get to a five percent budget cut. The gap between the highest- and lowest-paid employees is much higher in baseball, but the same trend is evident in schools. A 2010 study on New York City’s schools found that, under a five percent budget cut, 25 percent fewer teachers could be laid off if effectiveness, not seniority, was the dominant factor.
Who are these laid-off Yankees? If you’re not a hardcore sports fan, you may not recognize their names yet, but you might in a few years. More than half of them have been ranked among the Yankees’ best young prospects, and one player, Michael Pineda, was named to the All-Star team last year while playing for Seattle. The Yankees traded their top prospect for Pineda, but he would be given a pink slip under seniority-based layoffs. While many of these players are prospects that scouts think will be good at some point in the future, the study mentioned above of New York’s schools found that seniority policies in place now force the district to lay off teachers who are better than the ones who would be chosen if the district were allowed to focus on effectiveness.
The other group of employees who get laid off are workers whose experience in other fields doesn’t count toward the official seniority calculation. For the Yankees, this means they would pink slip 37-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, who has been in Major League Baseball only five years but spent 11 years playing professionally in Japan. Kuroda made the most starts of any Yankees pitchers this year, and he had the most quality starts, tied for the most wins, pitched the most innings, had the second-most strikeouts, and had the lowest Earned Run Average of any full-time starting pitcher. Using seniority alone, Kuroda would be let go. Schools sometimes do this too, because they don’t count years of being a practicing scientist when they’re counting seniority for their science teachers, and sometimes they don’t even count years of teaching in another city or state when they make the official seniority list.
If young, lower-paid workers are laid off, who would be left in the field? Like school districts that protect different departments and groups of teachers from being adversely affected by lay-offs, the Yankees would still be able to field a full team, but it would be older, have higher average salaries, and would require some players to cover positions they’re not perfectly suited for. For example, veteran Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter missed the final three games of the season after he suffered an ankle injury. He was replaced by 25-year-old Eduardo Nunez, but in a seniority layoff scenario, Nunez would be laid off. If Jeter isn’t healthy by the start of next year, the Yankees would be left with a guy who can technically play shortstop, but who’s actually more suited for second or third base. Schools do the same thing and assign remaining teachers to classrooms that, on paper, they can handle, but in practice are slightly out of their comfort zone.
The Yankees examples are merely hypothetical, and the parallels aren’t perfect, but schools all across the country make similar decisions every year, and they’re compounded year in and year out whenever schools and districts need to cut staff during budget crises, school closures, or student enrollment changes. If the Yankees wouldn’t field a baseball team this way, we shouldn’t staff our schools this way either.
Photo Credit: Flickr user NYC School Help