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Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

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Hector Amezcua/ hamezcua@sacbee.com
State scientists look at the soil near the Lake Tahoe golf course East of Meyers to determine a wetlands boundary.

Members of California’s state legal corps have approved a labor contract with Gov. Jerry Brown, their union has told members in an email.

With approximately two-thirds of eligible members voting, 82 percent agreed to take the three-year deal, according to California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges said Hearing Officers in State Employment. The union represents roughly 3,500 legal professionals.

Not long after CASE announced member voting results, lawmakers on Friday approved a bill that allocates at total $18.1 million to cover raises and other increased compensation costs in contracts bargained with the attorneys union ($12.6 million), the state scientists union ($3.1 million) and state building operators ($2.4 million).

The same measure, Senate Bill 879, sets aside $10.2 million for a 4 percent state fire-fighter raise that kicks in Jan. 1.

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Hector Amezcua/ The Sacramento Bee
Richard Dziedzic speaks to an Employment Development Department employee on a phone at the EDD office on Broadway in Sacramento.

Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Californians have been forced to wait for their unemployment checks because the state wrongly denied claims only to have the decisions reversed on appeal.

A new state audit portrays the Employment Development Department as squeezed between federal deadlines to decide benefit claims and requirements that cases be carefully reviewed. Expediency often trumps accuracy, according to the report, such that half of denied unemployment-benefits appeals are decided in favor of the claimants.

Of more than 390,000 decisions made by the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board in the last three fiscal years, between 45 percent and 51 percent favored claimants. Many of the decisions overturned conclusions by front-line EDD staff that the applicants were lying about how much they earned before losing their jobs.

The law allows the state to withhold benefits for willful false statements of income, not honest reporting mistakes.

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Randy Pench/ The Sacramento Bee
Firefighters work together as a hand crew to clear a fire break during a training exercise.

Editors note, 3:18 p.m.: This story has been changed to include a quote from Mike Lopez, president of California Department of Forestry Firefighters Local 2881.

State firefighters will receive a raise next year, according to Brown administration documents published on the state’s human resources website, even though their current contract doesn’t specifically call for a pay increase.

Roughly 4,700 members of California Department of Forestry Firefighters will be receiving a 4 percent salary bump on Jan. 1, 2015.

In addition, the salary range for employees in the Firefighter II classification, an entry-level full-time position, has been increased by 6.1 percent, or about $200 more per month. The Fighter II raise is retroactive to July 1, 2014.

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Brian Nguyen/ The Sacramento Bee
Scaffolding on the top of the parking garage serving the Board of Equalization building protects employees from glass panels that might fall from the tower’s exterior.

Editor’s note, 3:40 p.m.: This post has been updated with a quote from Board of Equalization Chairman Jerome Horton.

The Assembly sent legislation to Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday that would take a small step toward moving the Board of Equalization out of its defective headquarters in downtown Sacramento.

The final version of Assembly Bill 1656 headed to Brown’s desk on a 66-0 vote is far less ambitious than the original draft, but it aligns with the Brown administration’s intention to assess the nearly three dozen state-owned-and-operated buildings in the Sacramento region and then create a master plan to maximize their use. The bill’s author, Sacramento Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, originally proposed committing hundreds of millions of dollars to moving some 2,200 employees out of Equalization’s tower at 450 N St., but Brown signaled he wouldn’t go along.

Assuming the governor signs the bill, the Department of General Services, which acts as the state’s landlord and real estate agent, will receive $2.5 million to assess buildings and develop a long-range plan by next July, including identifying the three facilities in the worst condition. Those buildings – Dickinson assumes the Equalization tower qualifies – would be targeted for replacement. The Legislature would have to fund the projects.

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Jon Ortiz

After going more than a year without contracts, unions representing state attorneys, scientists and building equipment operators will soon announce how their members voted on new offers from Gov. Jerry Brown. A few observations about the deals:

• Contract talks between the scientists and the building operators became tense this year, and members of both unions rejected pacts that Brown offered. The building operators, who run state facilities’ water, heating and cooling systems, even threatened to strike. Meanwhile, the attorneys union also made a pitch for higher pay. No one disagrees that all three groups are relatively underpaid.

All three groups hoped for double-digit percentage raises, or at least a firm path to pay parity with counterparts in private or public sectors. All eventually settled for raises of 4.5 percent or less between now and July 1, 2015.

That underscores the Democratic governor’s advantage as he appears to be cruising into re-election. He’s popular. He’s powerful. And the unions have to deal with him. It’s not like they can support his outgunned GOP opponent Neel Kashkari.

Our story in today’s Sacramento Bee highlights a new state audit about errors in state leave accounting that credited some employees with more paid time off than they’ve actually earned. This link opens a summary of the report or those who want to dive more deepling into the audit can read it here.

High Risk Update: State Agencies Credited Their Employees With Millions of Dollars Worth of Unearned Leave...

From the notebook blog posts give State Worker users the notes, quotes, documents and details that inform news reports.

State agencies gave their employees nearly 200,000 hours of unearned leave credits worth almost $6.4 million over five years, and the self-inflicted taxpayer expense will only grow until the government fixes the errors, according to a new state audit.

Accounting mistakes, misinterpretations of labor contract requirements and a lack of accounting controls at state agencies and the California State University are to blame, State Auditor Elaine Howle said in the report. Meanwhile, it’s likely that some overpayments to departed employees can’t be recouped, she said, because the recovery law is vague.

Most departments highlighted in the audit agreed to fix their leave-accounting systems. State Controller John Chiang’s office, which collects the leave data that auditors analyzed, embraced some fixes but said others were unworkable or redundant and questioned the audit methodology.

Chiang’s acting chief administrative officer Tom Yowell also said in a response to the audit that the number of problems is so small compared to the billions of dollars in leave credits tracked that Howle’s audit “suggests that the leave accounting process is operating at over 99.99% accuracy.”

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Brian Nguyen/ The Sacramento Bee
The Board of Equalization with scaffolding around its base to protect pedestrians from falling exterior glass panels.

Legislation to move the state Board of Equalization’s operations from its troubled high-rise headquarters – at an estimated cost of $500 million – has been remodeled to conform to Gov. Jerry Brown’s more modest plan to assess how the state uses and maintains its buildings.

The measure revamped on Friday by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, starts with $2.5 million for the Department of General Services to develop a long-range plan for state buildings in the Sacramento region, including their best use and repair and maintenance needs. Assembly Bill 1656 would enshrine in statute the Brown administration‘s plan to review all of the 34 state-controlled and -owned office buildings in Sacramento County and West Sacramento, said David Gonsalves, Dickinson’s chief of staff.

The measure sets a July 1, 2015 deadline for the assessment, then requires that the state seek proposals “for the planning, design, construction, and acquisition of facilities” to replace the three buildings in the worst shape.

“We expect the (Board of Equalization) building to be in the top three,” Gonsalves said.

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Asa Mathat/ Department of Fair Employment and Housing
Department of Fair Employment and Housing Director Phyllis Cheng

After months of withering criticism, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has ended a policy blamed for chilling state-employee discrimination claims.

Department Director Phyllis Cheng on Thursday made the announcement in a conference call with department consultants who are on the front lines of the agency’s mission to investigate housing, workplace and disability discrimination allegations.

During that same call, spokeswoman Fahizah Alim confirmed, Cheng told staff that the department would, on Sept. 1, begin interviewing claimants at the start of the filing process. As first reported by The Sacramento Bee, Fair Employment switched to an online English-only computer system two years ago that required claimants – who may not speak English or have any knowledge of discrimination law – to build the case for their claims.

The HoudiniEsq program sometimes produced nonsensical allegations that the automated system would simply push on to employers or property managers accused of discrimination.

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Jose Luis Villegas/ The Sacramento Bee
Photo illustration

Some state computers are blocking emailed contract ratification ballots to state attorneys, their union said Thursday.

California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment, or CASE, informed its members of the problem and the union’s board announced it would extend the voting period by one week to 11:59 p.m. on August 28.

“(I)t appears that the firewalls and/or spam filters of some State departments are blocking e-mail messages originating from Votenet (caseelections@votenet.com) that contain the tentative agreement ratification ballot,” the union’s board said in an e-mail to members.

The glitch between the union’s system and state computers briefly delays a vote count on a contract bargained more than a year after the union’s last pact expired. Since then, the 4,000-or-so employees that CASE represents have been working under the terms of the expired contract, without the raises and higher employer health insurance contributions afforded other employees whose unions took agreements last year.

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Renee C. Byer/ The Sacramento Bee
An official stands near the composite solution cooling towers at the state's Central Heating and Cooling Plant in Sacramento. Operating engineers work at the plant.

After months of contentious talks, one rejected contract offer and a strike threat, negotiators representing 850 state operating engineers reached another tentative labor agreement with Gov. Jerry Brown late Thursday.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39 was the last state employee union without at least a tentative contract in place for the Legislature to consider before the curent session ends Aug. 31. Two unions representing state scientists and attorneys came to tentative terms with the administration last week. The remaining nine state-worker unions have contracts in place.

Members of the last three unions, which were all holding out for more pay, will have to approve the agreements for them to take effect.

Brown’s agreement with the operating engineers, who run heating, cooling, water and other complex systems for state facilities, is similar to the offer the rank-and-file rejected in June: a 2 percent raise retroactive to July 1 and a 2.5 percent increase on July 1, 2015. The contract expires a year later.

California’s largest state employee union is spending $180,000 on radio and online ads to support CalPERS board candidate Theresa Taylor, according to a state filing Thursday. The Franchise Tax Board employee is one of three candidates running for the state member seat on the 13-member board.

The independent expenditure by SEIU Local 1000 comes two days after the union contributed $200,000 to the committee created last week to support Taylor’s candidacy. The spending dwarfs her opponents’ backing.

The campaign of David Miller, an environmental scientist at the Department of Toxic Substances Control, recently received $4,100 from the Retired Public Employees Association, but has no other reported funding and no independent committee support.

Iqbal S. Badwalz, a Department of Education consultant also vying for the state member seat, has no reported campaign cash and no reported committee support.

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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