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Are These People Overpaid?

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MADISON, Wis. -- David Rhode is a paramedic in Middleton, Wis. He works 56 hours a week, mostly in 24-hour shifts, frequently carrying wheezy patients up and down flights of stairs. He said he earns about $43,000 a year.

HuffPost asked Rhode, 36, how it feels to be overpaid. His eyebrows went up.

"I drove my Ford Focus here," he said. "I live in a 950-square-foot condominium!"

Wisconsin has become the front line in a national debate over pay and benefits for unionized public workers, with conservatives arguing that people like Rhode have become a privileged class overburdening taxpayers. Gov. Scott Walker (R) is pushing a budget bill that calls for reduced pay, cuts to pension and health plans, and an end to collective bargaining rights for public workers. Similar measures are popping up in other states as lawmakers cope with recession-fueled deficits.

Rhode said he participated in contract negotiations between the Middleton city administrator and his union, which he said successfully bargained for less vacation time in order to maintain its current level of health coverage. Under the resulting contract, the city covers 95 percent of the cost of premiums. Walker's bill would cap that at 88 percent, which union bosses have said they're willing to accept so long as collective bargaining rights are preserved.

Rhode said the contract negotiations process in which he participated led to a successful compromise. "And that's what they're trying to take away," he said.

The governor's bill, which passed the State Assembly early Friday morning but still needs to go through the State Senate, would preserve collective bargaining rights for some public-safety workers like firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police and state troopers. Nevertheless, local cops and firefighters have shown solidarity with other union workers and expressed concern that their bargaining rights will be the next to go. They've joined the tens of thousands of protesters who've occupied the capitol building in Madison since the beginning of last week.

That's where HuffPost encountered Rhode on Thursday evening, wearing a blue T-shirt from the International Association of Fire Fighters, looking down on the crazy carnival scene in the rotunda. Protesters banged drums and danced while debate over amendments to Walker's bill droned through golden loudspeakers anchored on the walls. Many people had set up sleeping bags and air mattresses.

On the second floor, HuffPost met Erica McCool, a seventh-grade English teacher in Stoughton, carrying a sign that said she wouldn't let Walker into her classroom because he's a bully. A former paralegal, McCool said she she started studying to get a Wisconsin educator license in 2005 and now earns about $30,000 a year as an English teacher. She loves her job but laughed when asked whether she considered herself overprivileged.

"I can't get a home loan. I set my thermostat at 62. No cable at my house, no internet," said McCool, 29. "I'm also $36,000 in debt from becoming a teacher."

On the ground floor, Madison resident Pete Silva told HuffPost he had been a firefighter for 26 years when he retired in September at age 52. Silva said he worked 56 hours a week, often 24-hour shifts, driving a fire engine in response to fires and medical emergencies. He said his salary started at $31,000 and had reached $60,000 by the time he retired.

Silva said his pension provides $30,000 a year, which isn't enough for him to live on, so he's taken a job as an instructor in the Wisconsin Technical College System, earning roughly $55,000 a year. His total income is significantly higher than what he earned as a firefighter, but he makes no apologies, arguing that a nice pension was part of the deal he made in exchange for his decades in a dangerous job. He said he sustained two neck injuries from lifting "very, very heavy patients" and has had to replace herniated discs.

"We had the promise of stable retirement," Silva said, after a career spent in what he described as frequent contact with human blood, puke and poop. "You'd be amazed how much poop is out there," he added.

As for the push to limit the rights and funds enjoyed by unionized public workers, Silva said, "People hate to see someone doing better than they are."

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