The State Worker

Scientists sue Jerry Brown over travel and meal money

The union representing about 3,000 California state scientists is suing Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration for allegedly underpaying its members for work-related travel and meal expenses.

California Association of Professional Scientists claims the state failed to comply with an arbitrator’s May ruling that the union’s members should receive the same reimbursement rates as other state employees.

The dispute between the union and the state surfaced after modestly increased travel reimbursement rates kicked in last fall as a part of labor contracts other unions negotiated in 2013. The per diem breakfast rate increased from $6 to $7, the lunch rate went from $10 to $11. Dinner per diem increased $5 to $23 for qualifying meals. State lodging reimbursements formerly ranged from $84 to $140 per night, depending on location. The new contracts reset the range at $90 to $150.

But the scientists and two other unions hadn’t bargained new agreements and continued working under the terms of their expired contracts – and the lower per diem rates they contain, the Brown administration argued.

The scientists filed a grievance that won over arbitrator Catherine Harris. In May, she ordered the policy changed immediately for the scientists and told the administration to repay them the difference for expenses covered out of pocket since July 1, 2013.

(The scientists later sent a tentative labor agreement to members for a ratification vote that will be counted at the end of this month. That agreement includes higher business and travel reimbursements, but doesn’t apply retroactively.)

The state hasn’t coughed up the money. By law, the state can appeal an arbitrator’s decision up to 100 days after it is issued. CalHR spokeswoman Pat McConahay said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

In an email to members announcing the lawsuit this week, the union said it “believes the award is enforceable as is” and won’t wait “100 days – or even one day longer” to sue. The move means “CalHR is now required to raise its challenges to the arbitrator’s award – if any – within the next 10 days.”