The State Worker

Pensions, porn and a sleepy DMV worker – Our top 2018 California State Worker stories

Follow this state worker through 3 sexual harassment lawsuits and 9 job moves

California state worker Dennis B. Kellogg was named in three sexual harassment lawsuits as he worked for six different departments, including State Parks, Corrections and the DMV.
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California state worker Dennis B. Kellogg was named in three sexual harassment lawsuits as he worked for six different departments, including State Parks, Corrections and the DMV.

Two major court cases that unfolded in 2018 will shape the workdays and earnings of California public employees for years to come.

One took place at the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices in a 5-4 decision ended a 41-year precedent and barred public employee unions from collecting any kind of fee form workers who don’t want to join. That case, Janus vs. AFSCME, could weaken public sector unions over time.

The other – a pension lawsuit – is still in play. In it, the union that represents Cal Fire firefighters is trying to reinstate a retirement perk that Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012 pension law eliminated. A victory for Brown could put a dent in the so-called California Rule, the longstanding precedent that blocks government agencies from withdrawing retirement benefits they’ve promised to workers.

Those two cases were the big news for California state workers over the past 12 months. So were heroic sacrifices that public employees made in another devastating wildfire year, and a CHP officer who kept his cool in a heated protest following a Sacramento police shooting.

The Bee did some deep investigative work, too. Our stories on sexual harassment in the state workforce prompted Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to get serious about tracking alleged culprits.

You also clicked on a lot of other pieces. Here are the 10 most-read State Worker stories from The Bee in 2018.

California’s own travel ban

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is putting to use a law that allows him to ban state-funded travel to other states with laws that he perceives to be discriminatory against gay and transgender people.

He added Oklahoma to the roster of states on California’s no-fly list after the Sooner State adopted a law that could be used by adoption agencies to deny services to gay and transgender people. California now forbids most state-funded travel to nine states, including Texas and North Carolina.

Drowsy days at the DMV

Readers all over the world learned about a California state worker who can’t stay awake at the office when State Auditor Elaine Howle published a report in July describing the Department of Motor Vehicles’ failure to discipline the employee.

Howle’s report estimated the DMV worker slept at the office three hours a day, every day, for almost three years. The employee continues to work for the state.

Other popular DMV stories focused on the department’s challenges with wait times and its new responsibilities for voter registration. Director Jean Shiomoto in December announced that she’d retire.

Bawdy lottery photos

Anonymous whistleblowers at the California State Lottery had been trying to draw attention to their concerns about the department’s leadership for a year without much success.

They got it in August when The Bee and KGO published photos that the whistleblowers shared alleging that senior lottery leaders caroused at a Southern California piano bar. One allegedly showed a senior lottery executive with his head up a woman’s shirt.

Veteran Lottery employees demand resignations of senior department executives on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, after an anonymous whistleblower sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown alleging lewd sexual behavior and fraud.

The photos and a long letter led Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to request an investigation from the Department of Justice and to expand an audit by the State Controller’s Office.

Caltrans has jobs, jobs, jobs!

The combination of a new gas tax for road projects and a retirement wave has Caltrans on a major hiring spree.

In March, the department reported that it planned to fill 2,000 new jobs over the next five years to keep up with the work.

Caltrans kills homeless woman during camp cleanup

The state’s homelessness crisis is playing out alongside California highways, where homeless people sometimes find camps of last resort.

California’s homeless crisis is playing out on the state’s highways, where Caltrans is clearing dozens of camps every day. Here's the scene inside a camp near a Berkeley freeway in November 2018.

Caltrans regularly clears those camps, and it’s spending on that effort has tripled since 2013.

One cleanup in Modesto turned tragic when a Caltrans crew struck a sleeping woman with a heavy machine, killing her.

Workplace porn lawsuit haunts Caltrans

The price tag climbed from a 2013 lawsuit filed by a former Caltrans employee who alleged her colleagues retaliated against her after she complained about pornography they appeared to be sharing at work.

Rachel Elizondo won the case and a $605,000 judgment from a jury in late 2017. Her attorney, John Shepardson, filed an eye-popping claim requesting more than $4 million in fees and penalties from the state.

The bill didn’t quite reach those heights. A San Joaquin County Superior Court judge issued a tentative ruling this month indicating he’s ready to award $850,000 in legal fees to Shepardson, bringing Caltrans’ total bill to a little north of $1.4 million.

Can Jerry Brown break the California Rule?

Gov. Jerry Brown repeatedly in 2018 predicted that his successors will gain power to modify public employee pensions, ending the so-called California Rule that has blocked government agencies from tinkering with worker retirement plans.

He’s making that case in court, where his attorneys are defending the 2012 law he signed that eliminated generous pension formulas the state granted to workers during the dot com boom.

We wrote about the case frequently over the past year. The most popular story in the batch was one in which Brown bluntly said public employee pensions would be “on the chopping block” in a recession.

CalPERS CEO didn’t finish college

She leads the nation’s largest public pension, and she doesn’t have a college degree.

That didn’t bother the California Public Employees’ Board of Administration when it hired Marcie Frost to be its chief executive officer in 2016. Board members picked her because of her experience leading Washington State’s largest pension fund.

Two years later, Frost’s background surprised some government employees and retirees when a New York-based blogger called attention to misleading descriptions of Frost’s education in CalPERS promotional materials.

Most members of the CalPERS board backed Frost, saying Frost did not mislead them in interviews. They gave her a bonus and a raise after the blog published.

A $2 million headache at the lottery that still hurts

A group of California State Lottery cops were troubled by a $2 million jackpot that the department awarded to a ticketless winner two years ago despite contradictory evidence they obtained about his claim.

After raising doubts, one law enforcement executive lost his job.

Helen Brean is one of four California Lottery officers who lost their jobs after questioning a $1.9 million payment in 2016.

Another chief investigator was put on administrative leave and then dismissed. A lower-ranking investigator got a similar deal. They two of them then received settlements worth a combined $500,000 when they filed lawsuits contesting their discipline.

A big loss in court for unions

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision stripping unions of so-called fair share fees dealt a serious and immediate financial blow to many California public employee unions.

We wrote about the case, Janus vs. AFSCME, often in the course of the year. Our most read piece online looked ahead to the battle they’ll face as they try to hold on to members in the years ahead.

Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg, a former union attorney, rallied SEIU 1000 members at an event timed to the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court case.

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