The State Worker

The State Worker: California state scientists union holding out for parity pay

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

New year, same disagreement.

As the union representing nearly 3,000 state scientists heads back to the bargaining table on Friday, money remains a big sticking point in negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

California Association of Professional Scientists for years has argued to no avail that its members are underpaid compared to similar jobs in the private sector and local governments.

As a result, the state has trouble hanging on to scientists and has become the developmental league for local and federal agencies, said microbiologist Cassandra McQuaid.

She should know. Last summer, McQuaid left a job at the Department of Public Health’s state-of-the-art Richmond laboratories where she tracked foodborne illnesses. It’s the kind of vital, behind-the-scenes work that goes unnoticed until an E. coli outbreak makes headlines and local health officials need a crack team of scientists to unravel how it happened.

McQuaid loved the job. It was a prestigious position, she said, since other health agencies relied on her work. Then San Francisco’s public health lab offered her 33 percent more than the $60,000 per year she earned with the state.

“It really came down to money,” she said in a telephone interview. “I just couldn’t live in the Bay Area on a state salary.”

Colleagues she left behind say the same thing. Scientists in the Richmond lab have been circulating an online petition in advance of Friday’s talks, asking for “fair and competitive salaries, cost of living adjustments, and increased promotional opportunities.”

The scientists’ last across-the-board salary bump: 4 percent in 2007. While several unions last year accepted deferred general pay raises of up to 4.5 percent, the petitioners say that wouldn’t make up for years of lagging scientists’ pay. Certain jobs at DMV and the State Water Project were given parity pay bumps of up to 37 percent last year. The scientists say they’re “disheartened and frustrated” they don’t get similar consideration.

Chris Voight, CAPS executive director, said he understands the frustration, and it’s a big reason that the union held out last year when others were inking deals. CAPS also has suggested a federal-style geographic differential that accounts for high-cost-of-living metropolitan areas.

“The state chose to build a huge important facility (in Richmond),” he said. “They should fully fund staffing for it.”

The union took encouragement last week from a sentence in Brown’s 2014-15 budget proposal that sets aside money for “salary parity and inequity issues involving specific state managers and supervisors, particularly related to scientists and engineers.”

That still doesn’t mean big raises for the rank and file, but equity increases at the top adds leverage to the argument that workers farther down the org chart should get a taste, too.

That’s the scientists’ position, anyway. We’ll see if Jerry Brown agrees.