Pelican Bay State Prison dental assistant Tonya Eld told her boss that she was overpaid a decade ago – when George W. Bush was still president. She pointed to language in her union contract, and reported that her managers had placed her in the wrong range.
This spring, the state finally sorted it out.
Trouble is, Eld is on the hook for more than $20,000 in back wages that she says she can’t afford.
“They’re taking $329 (a month) out of my paycheck for the next six years,” Eld, 51, of Crescent City said.
On the surface, Eld’s predicament looks like a simple case of a state worker being overpaid and returning extra wages.
But her tale is more complicated.
She blew the whistle on herself, had her concerns dismissed by supervisors and now is paying for the years it took them to fix the their mistake.
In March, a state labor arbitrator said he had sympathy for her even as he allowed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to garnish her wages to compensate for the higher pay she earned from 2007 to 2010.
“The arbitrator nonetheless feels compelled to indicate he is not saying (Eld) did not make a sympathetic case,” arbitrator Michael Rappaport wrote. “In fact, the arbitrator recognizes the hardship caused to (Eld) by the misinformation given to her by the state.”
Eld’s long odyssey through the state’s human resources network has its origins in a convoluted package of raises that the corrections department negotiated with Eld’s union, Service Employees International Union Local 1000, a decade ago. Back then, the corrections department had a mandate to increase staffing and pay for health workers because an inmate’s lawsuit compelled it to improve dental care.
The top range for dental assistants went to those who had worked for the state for 10 years and also held a professional license for 10 years.
At first, according to documents in Eld’s arbitration case, the prison system awarded the top range pay to employees with 10 years of experience regardless of whether they had a license.
Almost immediately, Eld raised a flag about her salary. She had the experience, but she’d only had her license for two years.
When she reported that she was getting too much money, her supervisors checked and assured her that she was being paid at the correct rate.
DiDi McLoughlin, Eld’s former direct supervisor, testified that a prison personnel manager called Eld “unnecessarily a bit of worrier” because of Eld’s concerns about her pay.
Time would show that Eld’s worries were well-founded.
In 2010 – after two previous reviews concluded Eld was in the correct pay range – the state looked one more time and decided Eld was right and had been paid too much.
By then, she had stopped setting aside money to return to the state because she believed her managers’ assurances that she was in the correct salary range.
“What a ball to be dropped on their end,” she said.
Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said they did not know how many dental assistants owed debts to the state because of the contract error, or whether wages are still be taken from other workers’ paychecks.
Rappaport, the arbitrator, wrote that the 2010 pay audit concluded that 97 prison dental assistants were receiving higher wages than they were supposed to earn. It’s not clear how many of them contested the state’s decision to reclaim the money.
Eld’s case seemed to drift for several years after the audit, until the state began soliciting witness statements for her grievance.
After the audit, Eld did not set aside money to repay the extra wages because she believed she had a good chance of winning in a grievance based on her department’s repeated assurances that she was being paid correctly. Her representatives from SEIU 1000 made the case to Rappaport.
“I just never thought I would lose. I’m an optimistic person,” Eld said.
She concedes she could have prepared better for the arbitrator’s decision, but the ruling came at a difficult time for her. Her husband recently retired and is on a fixed income. She’s driving a 14-year-old car with no room for a car seat for her grandchild. She made $57,200 in 2016, according to state payroll records.
“I’m the person who will make lemonade out of lemons,” she said, “but the state took my sugar.”