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Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

State government’s fix for Fix50’s disruptions on Monday? Flexibility.

One department allowed staff to job-swap to dodge the traffic mess on the I-5 corridor. Another is expanding telecommuting for the duration of the project. And state officials say they’re assessing the impact on operations and have a menu of options ready to deploy if needed.

Ryan Mekata, a 38-year-old system software specialist for the Department of Technology, said he switched jobs with a colleague.

Mekata, who lives in Elk Grove and takes an E-tran bus to downtown Sacramento, traded work with another software specialist who lives in Natomas and normally commutes to Rancho Cordova.

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The Sacramento Bee

Commuters who flew westbound past the Fix50 project on the W-X freeway face a harsh reality this afternoon: Commutes are two-way affairs.

The Bee has you covered. We'll have our live traffic map and live traffic cam back on the sacbee.com home page for you to check before you leave work. Our live Fix50 blog also continues through commute hours.

And we’re not abandoning you on Day Two. On Wednesday, sacbee.com will again feature its live traffic map and camera. We’ll fire up the blog again at 6 a.m. And if you want to get text alerts for the latest on road conditions today and tomorrow, sign up on our resource page: www.sacbee.com/fix50.

Have a safe ride/walk/cycle home!

The Bee’s traffic guru Tony Bizjak is on the ground covering the Fix50 project morning and reporting what he sees on our Sacbee Live blog. Give us your take on the I-50 eastbound work via this poll.

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The Sacramento Bee.
The Fix50 project has partially closed the eastbound lanes of the W-X freeway.

So what are you seeing and hearing about the drive this morning, state workers?

More than 73,000 of you work in Sacramento County, many along the I-50 corridor between West Sacramento and Rancho Cordova. It’s safe to assume that you’re the largest employee group affected by commute routes disrupted by the Fix50 project that kicked off late last night with the partial closing of the eastbound W-X freeway.

So it makes sense to find out what you’re seeing on the streets, on light rail and buses. What’s the buzz where you work? What are colleagues saying about the drive? Will you do anything differently on Wednesday?

Shoot us an email or fire off a tweet to @TheStateWorker to contribute to our reporting on Day One of Fix50.

Tuesday marks the start of the Fix 50 freeway project that will affect commutes for tens of thousands of state employees working in downtown Sacramento and along Interstate 50 from Rancho Cordova to West Sacramento and beyond.

With the freeway work about to start, The Sacramento Bee and The State Worker are ramping up real-time coverage to help with your drive. Here’s a menu of services and coverage we’ve planned:

STATE WORKPLACE NEWS

The State Worker will carry news about how departments and state workers are dealing with expected delays. (We’re hearing that some departments have already set up contingency plans, but there’s nothing official yet.) Tell us what you’re seeing. Send a photo or write a brief description of what you’re seeing and hearing from coworkers. Email to jortiz@sacbee.com or tweet @TheStateWorker using the #Fix50 hashtag. State Worker items will also show up on the new Fix50 live blog.

California state government’s leave cash-out program is up and running at the Department of Social Services, where employees last week received query forms that asked if they wanted to trade up to 20 hours of leave time for money.

Social Services workers covered by the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and International Union of Operating Engineers (Bargaining Unit 12) are eligible under terms of contracts bargained last year. The state’s civil service engineers’ union, a group mostly found in Caltrans, also bargained a leave cash-out clause. And the Brown administration added excluded employees to the program – managers, supervisors and the like – even if they manage unionized workers who aren’t eligible.

About 62,000 of the state’s 218,000 government workforce falls into one of the four groups.

Departments have discretion whether to offer the program, since they have to cash out the leave credits with money pulled from existing resources. Disbursements must be made by the end of June. Here’s how Social Services asking its unionized workers and its excluded staff about participating.

Our State Worker column this week highlights a new report that concludes public employees brought in under last year’s cheaper pension formulas must work up to five years longer or save thousands of dollars each year to have the same retirement income as workers under older, more generous pension plans.

Here’s the CalPERS report that underpinned the column and a companion report that concludes lower pension benefits for new hires will pressure employers to offer better pay to recruit future workers.

The Emerging Role of Defined Contribution Plans for California Public Employees

California Public Employee Retirement Benefits— Assessing Compensation Changes

California became a dual-class public employee state last year when a sweeping law lowered pension benefits for state and local government workers hired in 2013 and later.

What that means for the state, for taxpayers, for employers, has been known for a while. But now a new CalPERS report uses a few examples to illustrate the law’s impact on individuals. It concludes that new members must set aside hundreds of dollars per month or extend their careers for years to achieve the same retirement income as counterparts under older, more generous formulas.

Let’s take a miscellaneous employee, a common classification that covers everyone from DMV office staff to local school custodians. Say the employee retires at age 55 after 20 years of service with a final salary of $92,200.

That worker, if hired before Brown’s law changed retirement benefits formulas, CalPERS estimates, would receive a $3,020-per-month pension (plus Social Security). CalPERS refers to employees under that old, 2 percent-of-pay at 55 plan as “classic members.”

Since our report on the state’s employee leave cash out program for three bargaining units and all excluded employees (if departments can afford it), we’ve fielded calls and emails from state workers whose responses range from praise to disdain.

One employee said the extra cash would help offset a hefty tax bill he has to pay this month. Another state worker said the program is too narrowly defined and too cheap; she thought it should apply to all employees and should cash out up to 40 hours of leave. Another suggested only employees above the state’s 640-hour cap on leave should be able to buy down hours.

Another state employee said he’s not in one of the groups eligible for the program, but if offered the chance, he wouldn’t cash out his leave. He has small kids and needs the hours more to stay home when they’re sick. If you had the chance to cash out 20 hours of leave, would you? Take our poll. In a few months, we’ll match the results against how many state workers are offered a leave cash out opportunity versus how many take it.

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Sacramento Bee file
The CalPERS headquarters building in Sacramento.

Editor's note, 3:50 p.m.: This post has been amended to include information about the law firms spearheading the long-term care lawsuit against CalPERS.

CalPERS has asked a judge to throw out a lawsuit alleging that the fund and individual board members, among other things, failed to watch out for members’ best interests when the fund increased rates on long-term care insurance plans.

The fund’s attorneys said in a recent Los Angeles court filing that CalPERS has a “clear contractual right to impose the complained-of increases,” that CalPERS’ actions reflect trends in the long-term care industry and that, even if the plaintiffs’ allegations are correct, CalPERS and its board members are immune from liability.

The plaintiffs’ complaint was triggered by CalPERS’ decision to increase the rates of its most expensive long-term care policies by 85 percent in 2015 and 2016. The fund under-priced the policies when it launched the program nearly 20 years ago, the lawsuit contends, and sold them with a lie: that rates “would be fixed and would never rise based on the consumer’s age or health.” After CalPERS mismanaged its investments, the lawsuit says, it wrongly forced policyholders to make up the losses by jacking up long-term care rates.

Tens of thousands of state workers stand to get extra money in the next couple months by cashing out some of their unused leave time – assuming the state can find money to cover it.

Under the terms of contracts bargained last year, about 30,000 unionized civil engineers, investigators and heavy mechanical equipment operators could qualify to convert up to 20 hours of leave time into dollars. Last week the state made the same offer to about 32,000 managers and supervisors across state government.

The payments, which could reach about one-sixth of the rank-and-file workforce, must be made from departments’ current funds by the end of June and will likely cost millions of dollars. Such a program would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when Gov. Jerry Brown froze hiring, slashed everything from departments’ cellphones to office space and furloughed employees in response to California’s serial budget crises.

While the program will likely cost some departments big money up front, it saves even bigger costs down the line by reducing hours that their employees would cash out later at a higher pay rate when they quit or retire.

About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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Note: The State Worker blog switched blog platforms in October 2013. All posts after the switch are found here. Older posts are available using the list below.


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