California is struggling to give raises to state workers who were supposed to get them last year even as a new contract year begins.
Nearly 1,000 members of Professional Engineers in California Government reported payroll errors after their 2018 contract was signed in September, and 300 are still trying to recover pay they believe they are owed, according to emails and interviews.
New contracts for other unions are now on the bargaining table. In the first week of July, five unions’ contracts will expire. One of the unions, the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, has negotiated a new agreement that is awaiting approval from the Legislature.
The engineers union agreement included a 4.5 percent raise backdated to July 1, extra pay for workers with 20 years of state service and an extra $250 per month for workers living in expensive areas.
Its 11,000 members didn’t start receiving the raises until December and January, and then many reported problems receiving the backdated portion, including wrong amounts and increases on some checks but not others, according to emails between the union and the State Controller’s Office, which The Sacramento Bee obtained under the Public Records Act.
“I would say that PECG members were very happy with their new (contract) and pay raises and remain so. But it takes the luster off the raise if you’re not getting it, and you’re not getting it on time, and you have to spend time with your personnel specialist wondering why,” PECG Executive Director Ted Toppin said in an interview. “That’s frustrating, we understand it, we just try to fix it. That’s all we can do.”
The union is continuing its efforts to get all workers their correct back pay.
The delay underscores problems with the state’s 40-year-old payroll system and the challenges of communicating how to make changes in the system across 150 state departments that employ workers from 23 bargaining units. Any retroactive raises contained in the contracts being negotiated now could tax the system further.
While the PECG delay is particularly protracted, problems administering pay increases for state workers aren’t new. The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents maintenance workers around the state, filed a grievance in April 2017 after waiting three months for a raise to show up in its members checks.
A bonus negotiated for SEIU members in 2016 was delayed until early 2017 as the union and the Controller’s Office figured out the best way to pay it. The controller eventually combined the bonus with workers’ regular compensation to avoid a higher tax rate.
The emails between PECG and the Controller’s Office offer a glimpse of the difficulties involved.
Toppin emailed the State Controller’s Office Sept. 10 asking if the pay increases the state finalized that month could be included in that month’s paychecks.
“Thank you for your patience,” began the reply from Program Management and Analysis Bureau staff member Lisa Dean at the Controller’s Office. Dean explained that CalHR would have to publish a pay letter with instructions for the raise, which would start the process.
CalHR published the pay letter Dec. 12. The Controller’s Office issued another letter the same day instructing state departments on specific changes. The raises went into effect for some employees in December, and the more complicated payments were issued in January, according to the Controller’s Office.
The total of PECG members reporting problems with their pay since then has reached 939, Toppin said. The number changed from month to month as employees, many of whom work for Caltrans and the Department of Water Resources, spotted problems with their pay when they double-checked it after hearing of problems from the union or coworkers.
Tom Yowell, chief of the Administration and Disbursements Division at the Controller’s Office, pointed to the 40-year-old system when explaining the delay in an email to Toppin.
“We take pains to ensure any changes to the payroll system are checked and double checked to ensure the utmost accuracy,” Yowell added. “We test for correct outcomes before releasing updates. Oftentimes pay letters from CalHR are insufficiently detailed, requiring some back and forth communication to sort out any details.”
In a March email, PECG webmaster Michelle Manawis described a circular pattern behind the delays.
When members found problems with their pay, they took them up with their human resources departments, as they had been directed, according to Manawis’ email. The human resources departments would blame the Controller’s Office, sometimes telling employees their pay wouldn’t be fixed for four or six months. The Controller’s Office responded that the HR specialists should have been making the changes, which are unique to each department under the state’s decentralized pay system.
By April, the Controller’s Office emailed lists of affected employees to every department. By June, the office had set up a special email address for departments to email updated forms for affected employees. The email directed departments to submit the necessary paperwork by July 15.
The union’s 2018 contract calls for a 4 percent increase this July.
“This is past the point of being explainable,” Toppin said in an interview.
The state has been planning to overhaul the payroll system since at least 1999. State Controller Betty Yee, who was re-elected in 2018, has said she is making the system a priority of her second four-year term, but said it will take longer than four years to replace it.
The California Association of Highway Patrolmen’s contract expired last year, but it still doesn’t have a new contract.
Five unions have contracts expiring this summer: the California Correctional Peace Officers Association; the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association; the International Union of Operating Engineers; the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians; and the California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges, and Hearing Officers in State Employment.
“As bargaining negotiations progress, SCO is working closely with CalHR to determine how the negotiated terms of pay differentials can be accommodated,” Controller’s Office spokeswoman Taryn Kinney said in an email. “However, due to the state’s distributed model of payroll management and decentralized timekeeping, all pay increases will still require each state departments’ HR unit take action promptly for their employees.”
In addition to the six unions with expired contracts, the state’s largest union — SEIU Local 1000 — started negotiations Wednesday. SEIU’s contract expires in January.