The State Worker

Scientist union’s talks stalled over pay

Warning signs posted by the California Department of Fish and Game mark closed areas affected by an oil spill at Refugio State Beach. Some of the cleanup at the beach was done by members of the California Association of Professional Scientists.
Warning signs posted by the California Department of Fish and Game mark closed areas affected by an oil spill at Refugio State Beach. Some of the cleanup at the beach was done by members of the California Association of Professional Scientists. The Associated Press

The labor contract between the California state government and its scientists expired on Tuesday, spotlighting yet again the long-running feud over whether the tiny union’s members should earn as much as their peers in federal and local governments and private industry.

No one disagrees that a gap exists between salary and benefits (referred to as “total compensation” by human-resources types) for the vast majority of the 2,800 or so employees represented by California Association of Professional Scientists and the industry at large.

A recent survey by the Brown administration found that the total compensation for half of state-employed chemists is less than $8,985 per month. That’s 33 percent less than the median total compensation for federal chemists, nearly 13 percent less than the midpoint for local-government chemists and almost 6 percent below the private sector.

The median monthly total compensation for state environmental scientists, $9,655, lags the federal median by 39 percent, the private sector’s by 37 percent and local government’s by almost 4 percent.

Those two job classes account for two-thirds of employees in the union. They perform a wide variety of tasks, everything from fighting food-borne illnesses to mopping up the Refugio State Beach oil spill. Rita Hypnarowski, a senior environmental scientist who oversees a team at the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said many of her colleagues have left for better pay. Those who remain talk openly about their dissatisfaction.

“It’s a challenge to keep people motivated,” she said. “We talk about retaining the best and the brightest, but I can see that’s not going to happen.”

The stakes for the union’s leadership are particularly high. Last year, the CAPS board sent Gov. Jerry Brown’s contract offer for a 4.5 percent raise to their members but didn’t recommend the deal. The members spurned it.

Then the board came back with a short-term agreement with a $1,000 bonus and 3 percent raise that kicks in today – a smaller increase than what was rejected. The thinking: Give Brown a cheap deal before his November re-election, then negotiate a better arrangement in 2015 when the political stakes aren’t as high. The members approved the deal.

Then Brown awarded raises of up to 42 percent to state scientists’ managers to comply with a 6-year-old order that management should be paid more because their raises had lagged in comparison to those of subordinates.

That boosted the managers’ pay by an average $42,800 per year, and raised CAPS’ expectations that the governor would fund rank-and-file pay parity or something close to it.

The stalled talks indicate that Brown doesn’t see it that way. Although Department of Human Resources spokesman Jim Zamora said the administration never discusses contract negotiations, CAPS Staff Director Chris Voight did:

“After years of substandard raises, there are higher expectations – but we remain far apart on compensation.”

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